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German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has voiced concern that nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands if instability in Pakistan worsens in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's death.
Violence has engulfed Pakistan after inflamed Bhutto supporters went on the rampage
"Nuclear weapons should never fall into the hands of Islamists.
Despite the current unstable situation, there is not yet any concrete risk (that it could happen) but the situation has to be put right for that to remain true," Steinmeier told weekly Bild am Sonntag in an interview to be published Sunday.
Steinmeier isn't the only one fretting about Pakistan's nuclear weapons
"We will discuss what we can do to this end with the United Nations, the United States and the Europeans," he added.
"We are horrified by the cruel attack" which cost former prime minister Bhutto her life and "which has created a situation which
could lead to the most serious crisis in the history of Pakistan," he said. He called on Pakistani politicians "to work together now to stand up to the (Islamist) fundamentalists."
West concerned by Pakistan unrest
Steinmeier's comments reflect growing concerns among Western leaders about Pakistan's slide into violence after Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack after an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi on Dec. 27.
More than 40 people have been killed in Pakistan in rioting and shootings as inflamed supporters of Bhutto went on the rampage in several cities and towns. Violence continued on Saturday, Dec 29, as protesters in the southern province of Sindh, Bhutto's political stronghold, torched shops, lorries, welfare centres and ambulances.
Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack after an election rally
Bhutto's killing has also thrown into doubt whether Pakistan can hold an election in 10 days time that was meant to complete a transition to civilian rule.
The United States and other Western allies have urged President Pervez Musharraf to press ahead with polls they hope will bring stability to a country emerging from eight years of military rule while facing growing violence from Islamist militants allied to al Qaeda.
Pakistan's nuclear status sparks jitters
But it's the thought of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands that has sparked profound unease in the West.
France echoed Germany's concerns over Pakistan's nuclear capability falling into the hands of extremists and the killing threatening stability throughout South Asia.
"That is why we regard Pakistan and the odious assassination of
Benazir Bhutto in part as an assassination of democracy... and we
must not allow that," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
In addition to bordering volatile Afghanistan, al Qaeda's sway in the country's tribal areas and its reputation as a breeding ground for Islamists, Pakistan remains the only Muslim country known to have nuclear weapons.
The country carried out its first nuclear test in 1998 and claims to have about 80 to 120 warheads. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are stored in bunkers in about half-a-dozen military bases.
Founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan
Pakistan's image was dealt a massive blow in 2004 when it emerged that its chief nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had been peddling nuclear equipment on a global black market. Khan confessed to passing atomic secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. He was pardoned by Musharraf but remains under virtual house arrest.
But analysts said Pakistan's military was firmly in control of the nuclear arsenal and that it was unlikely al Qaeda or Taliban militants could get hold of the weapon components and missiles, which are kept separately.
Leonard Spector, deputy director of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies told news agency AFP he thought the risk of weapons falling into rogue hands was slight.
"Pakistan's weapons are under the control of the military and by and large that will remain unchanged, I think. From a standpoint of security we'll probably have continuity and relatively satisfactory control," he said.
Not advisable to travel to Pakistan
The chaos and violence in Pakistan has prompted many Western governments to advise their citizens against traveling to Pakistan.
A travel update on the German Foreign Ministry's website said it was advisable to delay visits to Pakistan until the situation had calmed.
Supporters throng Bhutto's coffin before her burial
The chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, Ruprecht Polenz, said he feared the assassination would push the country towards anarchy. Polenz said in a radio interview that it was important for the population to heed President Pervez Musharraf's call for calm in order not to exacerbate the situation.
German parliamentarian Sebastian Edathy, who is travelling to
Pakistan as an official observer of the forthcoming elections, told
German news agency dpa that the country was at a decisive moment.
Edathy warned that the stability of the entire region depended on
Pakistan and he recommended sticking to the January 8 polling date, as postponing it would leave the country without legitimate political leadership for even longer.