updated 7/2/2007 11:44:23 PM ET 2007-07-03T03:44:23

A.Q. Khan, the scientist who became a national hero for developing Pakistan's atomic bomb and went on to sell nuclear secrets abroad, can leave house arrest to meet with friends and relatives, officials said Monday.

In his first public statement in years, Khan told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he was recovering for treatment for prostate cancer.

Khan confessed in 2004 to heading a network that supplied sensitive technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya. The ring had been in operation for nearly three decades.

Many Pakistanis still regard Khan as a hero because of his role in developing the country's nuclear deterrent against its larger neighbor India. He was pardoned by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, though he was still confined to his plush villa in Islamabad.

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.

‘Virtually a free citizen’
"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 continue to provide him with a security detail that restricts 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," which first surfaced in Pakistan's Nawa-i-Waqt newspaper on Monday, she said.

Reached by telephone at his residence, 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.

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 insists it was unaware of his dealings, but refuses 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.

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

Mahdi Hassan, a retired professor and political analyst, said news of the eased restrictions was leaked because the U.S. government had recently expressed satisfaction over the way Pakistan has handled the investigation.

"It is only because of the clearance we have received from the U.S. government," he said.

Khan has not been seen in public since his confinement began 3 1/2 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.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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