ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The father of the Pakistani bomb appeared on national television Wednesday apologizing to his nation for proliferating nuclear technology.
Later, the government said Abdul Qadeer Khan also asked President Pervez Musharraf to forgive him. Political observers in the capital, Islamabad, say Musharraf is likely to pardon the scientist to avoid further embarrassment.
The latest twist in a proliferation scandal that stretches from Iran to North Korea and Libya comes hours before an expected address to the nation by President Musharraf.
Khan, who apparently played a key role in transferring nuclear technology to these rogue states, has absolved the Pakistani government and his fellow scientists of any blame.
His admission, however, failed to satisfy the country's religious circles who are blaming the Musharraf regime of falsely implicating Khan and other scientists in the proliferation scandal to please Washington.
The country's main religious parties have urged Pakistanis to observe a countrywide strike on Friday against the detention of Khan and six other scientists.
The proliferation scandal started to unroll in November 2003 when Iran informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that it had received nuclear technology from Pakistan.
The Pakistani government initially rejected the claim as false but later acknowledged that some of its scientists had shared nuclear technology with Iran against the official policy of total non-proliferation.
The government also said that it has traced millions of dollars in overseas accounts of Khan and some other scientists who could not explain how they received this money.
In a somber address on the state-run Pakistan television, Khan said the government had "never authorized" him or any other scientist to transfer nuclear technology to Iran, Libya or North Korea.
"My dear brothers and sisters, I have chosen to appear before you to offer my deepest regrets and unqualified apologies. There was never ever any kind of authorization for these activities by the government. I take full responsibility for my actions and seek your pardon."
Khan said he has "explained to President Musharraf the background on what was happening and what had happened, and he appreciated the frankness with which I gave him the details." It was the first public statement by Khan since the investigation into the proliferation allegations began more than two months ago.
But Pakistani nuclear experts said the admission by the 69-year old, silver-haired scientist who was once accused of stealing nuclear secrets from a Dutch atomic plant for making Pakistan's nuclear bomb, may not end the scandal.
"It is still difficult to believe that the scientists might have done all this on their own. After all, nothing could have gone out of the nuclear plants without the consent of those responsible for their security," says Dr. A.H. Nayyar, an anti-nuclear activist who teaches physics at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University.
Other commentators said Khan's admission is a bid to repair the damage dealt to Pakistan's nuclear program by the proliferation scandal.
"It smacks of a cover-up. If scientists take all the blame, the military will be spared of any scrutiny," said journalist and author Shahidur Rahman who has written a book on Pakistan's nuclear program.
"It is not difficult to guess who benefits from Khan's confession," said Rahman.
The powerful Pakistani military has been responsible for the security of the Pakistani nuclear plants ever since the country launched its program to make nuclear weapons following an atomic test by archrival India in 1974.
"Coming two days before the call for a nationwide strike, the admission looks even more suspicious," said Liaquat Baluch, a representative for the seven-party religious alliance called the United Front for Action. The front leads the call for the strike.
"People will not allow the government to disgrace its national heroes," he added. Khan is seen in Pakistan as a national hero for enabling the country to conduct nuclear tests in May 1998 days after similar tests by India.
Some Western diplomats in the Pakistani capital Islamabad also say that Khan could not have transferred nuclear technology to the three rogue nations on his own.
The generally argued, but unsubstantiated, theory in Pakistan is that the government allowed the sale of this technology to raise money for the country's nuclear program but is now putting all the blame on the scientists.
Some politicians also have demanded similar scrutiny of the country's two former army chiefs, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg and Gen. Jehangir Karamat.
Observers also say that in his address to the nation on Thursday Musharraf may quietly forgive Khan because it would be too embarrassing for the government to try him openly.
"It will further annoy the religious and nationalist circles who already blame Musharraf for being too obedient to Washington," says political scientist Rashid Khalid who teaches politics at a university in Islamabad.
"Besides, during the trial Khan may reveal details that the government may not want to make public, such as the alleged involvement of the Pakistani generals in the scandal," said Khalid.
In a statement issued in Islamabad, Khan has already asked Musharraf to forgive him. The statement said that Khan submitted "a mercy petition" to Musharraf when he met the Pakistani president at his army residence earlier Wednesday. The meeting was held on Khan's request, the statement said.
The president told him the "entire nation had been severely traumatized'' by the scandal, said the statement.
The statement also mentioned that Khan has "accepted full responsibility for all the proliferation activities, which were conducted by him during the period in which he was at the helm of affairs at Khan Research Laboratories," a nuclear facility named after the now disgraced scientist.
The statement said that the president would consult with the National Command Authority that controls Pakistan's nuclear assets before taking a final decision on Khan's plea for mercy.
The nuclear National Command Authority, made up of the country's top military and civilian leaders, is due to meet shortly and is expected to accept Khan's appeal for full pardon.