Pakistan Lessens Restrictions on Scientist A.Q. Khan, Who Sold Nuclear Secrets

Authorities have eased the virtual house arrest imposed on A.Q. Khan, the disgraced scientist who sold Pakistan's nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya, officials said Monday.

In what is believed to be his first public comment in about three years, Khan told The Associated Press that he was recovering from treatment for cancer, but declined to discuss other topics.

Khan, 71, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear program, confessed in 2004 to heading an international ring of smugglers that supplied sensitive technology to Iran and others.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf pardoned him while confining him to his tightly guarded villa in the capital, Islamabad. He has been permitted few visitors.

However, two senior government officials told the AP that the restrictions were eased several months ago and that Khan could now meet friends and relatives either at his home or elsewhere in Pakistan.

"He is virtually a free citizen," said one of the officials, who is attached to the nuclear program.

However, the second official said Khan was only allowed to meet associates and relatives on a list approved by authorities, who would continue to provide him with a security detail that will restrict his movements.

Both asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of Khan's case.

Asked whether the government has relaxed restrictions on Khan, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said "there is no change in his status. He continues to lead a quiet life with his family."

"He meets his friends. He talks to people. This was happening even before the news reports," she said.

Reached by telephone at his residence in an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad, Khan declined to discuss the restrictions.

"I am feeling much better, though I can't say I am 100 percent fit," said Khan, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in August last year.

Khan is still regarded as a national hero by many Pakistanis because of his role in developing the country's nuclear deterrent against its larger neighbor India.

Pakistan launched a formal investigation into Khan's dealings in 2003 after the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, wrote a letter to Pakistan saying that Khan was operating a black market in weapons technology and know-how.

Pakistan's government maintains it was not aware of his dealings, but has repeatedly refused to allow the IAEA to question him.

Several U.S. lawmakers warned last week that Khan's network could still be in business and pressed for Pakistan to provide more information.

However, Pakistan says it has shared the findings of its own probe and the Bush administration has repeatedly praised Islamabad for its help in preventing further nuclear proliferation.

One of the officials who spoke Monday said no country had asked to "directly interrogate" Khan and reiterated that the investigation was over.

Khan has not been seen in public since his confinement began three-and-a-half years ago -- although he has been seen sitting on the verandah of his villa, sometimes chatting on a cell phone or waving to passers-by.