Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, has confessed to sharing nuclear technology with Iran, Libya, and North Korea in a 12-page document presented to President Pervez Musharraf, according to a briefing given by government officials in Islamabad.
News of the confession followed a decision to dismiss Mr. Khan from his government post on Saturday by the nuclear command authority, a grouping of top military and political officials supervising the probe.
The confession will bolster the government's hand should it decide in the coming days to prosecute Khan - a popular figure who combines the brilliance of Albert Einstein with the nationalist fervor of John Wayne.
"During investigations, Khan said we wanted some other Muslim countries to develop nuclear technology, so pressure on Pakistan could be lessened," says an official close to the investigation. When it was pointed out that North Korea is not a Muslim country, Khan "could not give a specific answer," says the source.
The fate of Khan and other suspects in the probe lies with the nuclear command authority. The options are said to include a military court, a special tribunal, or administrative action. Putting a national hero on trial would be a risky move for Mr. Musharraf, and one that could have far-reaching political implications in a nation that is already sensitive about protecting its sovereignty.
Official sources say the bank accounts of Khan and other suspected individuals have been closely monitored; all suspects are barred from traveling abroad.
Pakistan's covert nuclear program generated controversy last November when the International Atomic Energy Agency probing Iran's nuclear program found evidence that some Pakistani scientists might have aided the neighboring country in its developing nuclear program.
Western intelligence sources say Pakistani scientists also traded uranium enrichment with North Korea and Libya in separate deals.
Sources say the international nuclear body provided the list of at least five scientists and officials associated with the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL), a uranium enrichment plant headed by Khan from 1976 to 2001, located just outside the capital city of Islamabad.
Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman says the investigation is concluding as "the bulk of the investigation is completed."
Officials say six suspects remain in custody. Among them are three scientists: former director general of the KRL, Mohammad Farooq, and two other close aides of Khan. Others are administrators and security personnel of the KRL, including two former military brigadiers and Khan's Personal Staff Officer. Khan has not been detained but his movement has been restricted and his Islamabad residence is under 24-hour watch.
"If some of those who were called national heroes have done this, the nation has the right to see the true faces of those who have compromised Pakistan's national interest and used its assets for personal gains," says Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hyat.
Khan is witnessing the end of his golden era spanning almost three decades, during which he was projected as a national asset and his posters adorned the streets. People named their children after him. Cricket clubs and social welfare associations wished to be honored by his participation in generating funds.
Two years ago, Musharraf removed Khan from the active management of the KRL. Khan was given a ceremonial government position - the post stripped from him Saturday.
Opposition parties and a religious alliance of extremist groups coordinated small-scale rallies across the country condemning Musharraf. Ghafoor Ahmed, a senior religious leader, says that religious and political parties should forge an alliance to "protect the country's nuclear program."
The decision to remove Khan, while leaving alone many of his military and government backers, provoked harsh criticism from observers.
"While we say a few scientists were involved, the world will say it couldn't have happened without the knowledge or connivance of the top army brass," the country's leading columnist, Ayaz Amir, wrote in the Dawn newspaper.
It remains to be seen whether the government and military's probe will be widened to include top military officials. Musharraf is expected to discuss the investigation and the dismissal of Khan in a televised address to the nation on Thursday.