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Sun 10 Feb 2008 10:19 AM

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Pakistan's nukes safe, US official

Chief of military declares Islamic state's nuclear weapons in safe hands, despite growing violence.

The chief of the US military said that Pakistan's atomic weapons were secure despite rising Islamic militancy in the nuclear-armed South Asian country.

Admiral Mike Mullen told reporters after talks with President Pervez Musharraf and army chief Ashfaq Kayani that his discussions focused on the security situation in the region.

As the general spoke, a suspected suicide bombing killed at least 20 people and injured about two dozen others at an election rally in northwest Pakistan, a hotbed of Islamic militancy.

"Certainly the threat is going up. We are both concerned about that. Certainly in my meetings today, all the leadership expressed concern about being able to eliminate that threat over time," Mullen said.

But he added: "I am very comfortable that the nuclear weapons are secure and that proper procedures are in place. I am not concerned that they are going to fall into the hands of any terrorists."

Mullen also ruled out direct US intervention to deal with the Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who he said had found safe havens in the country's rugged tribal region.

Pakistan has reacted angrily to suggestions that US forces based in Afghanistan could carry out operations in Pakistan's troubled tribal areas, branded a safe haven for Al-Qaeda militants.

"I give no credence to the notion that the United States could in any way, shape or form invade or attack Pakistan," said Mullen, on his first visit to Pakistan since assuming command in October.

He also said he was not aware of any intelligence report that Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership was operating from Pakistani territory - the claim made by an unidentified US official in a media briefing in Washington Friday.

"I am not aware that it is a fact at all," Mullen said.

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