Karachi: Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist who acknowledged being part of a nuclear proliferation ring, died on Sunday. He was 85.
Khan was admitted to Khan Research Laboratories Hospital on August 26 after testing positive for COVID-19 and was later moved to a military hospital in Rawalpindi, said the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan.
Khan, who was born in 1936 in Bhopal and migrated to Pakistan along with his family after the Partition in 1947, breathed his last at about 7.00 am (local time) at Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) Hospital.
Geo News reported that Khan was brought to the hospital early in the morning after he faced difficulty in breathing.
According to doctors, Khan's health deteriorated after bleeding in his lungs. He could not survive after his lungs collapsed.
"He was loved by our nation bec(ause) of his critical contribution in making us a nuclear weapon state," Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan on Twitter. "For the people of Pakistan he was a national icon."
Khan, considered as the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, is revered at home as a hero. He was also called a man who built the Muslim world's first atomic bomb.
He was at the centre of a global nuclear proliferation scandal in 2004 that involved sales of nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya. After a confession on national television, Khan was pardoned by then-president Pervez Musharraf but he remained under house arrest for years in his palatial Islamabad home.
In his confession, Khan said he acted alone without the knowledge of the state officials. However, he later said he had been scapegoated.
He retracted his earlier statement, which he said was made under duress exercised by then military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
He said Pakistan would never have achieved the feat of becoming first Muslim nuclear country without his "services".
Referring to the treatment meted out to him during under Musharraf, Khan said nuclear scientists in the country have not been given the respect that they deserve.
In 2009, the Islamabad High Court declared Khan to be a free citizen of Pakistan, allowing him free movement inside the country.
In May 2016, Khan had said that Pakistan could have become a nuclear power as early as 1984 but the then President, General Zia ul Haq - who was Pakistan's President from 1978 to 1988 - "opposed the move".
Khan had also said that Pakistan has the ability to "target" Delhi from Kahuta near Rawalpindi in five minutes.
Kahuta is the home to the Kahuta Research Laboratories (KRL), Pakistan's key uranium enrichment facility, linked to the atomic bomb project.
In a 2018 book "Pakistan's Nuclear Bomb: A Story of Defiance, Deterrence And Deviance", Pakistani-American scholar and academic Hassan Abbas has highlighted Khan's involvement in nuclear proliferation in Iran, Libya and North Korea.
He wrote that the origins and evolution of the Khan network were tied to the domestic and international political motivations underlying Pakistan's nuclear weapons project.
The writer also examined the role of China and Saudi Arabia in supporting its nuclear infrastructure. Khan is reported to have intimate links with China's nuclear establishment.
"He helped us develop nation-saving nuclear deterrence, and a grateful nation will never forget his services in this regard," Pakistani President Arif Alvi said in a tweet.
Prime Minister Imran Khan said the scientist would be buried at Islamabad's Faisal mosque, according to his wishes.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed said that all efforts were made to save his life. Defence Minister Pervez Khattak said he was "deeply grieved" over his death and called it a "great loss".
"Pakistan will forever honour his services to the nation! The nation is heavily indebted to him for his contributions in enhancing our defence capabilities," he said.
(With PTI and Reuters inputs)