India's prime minister declared his country a nuclear weapons state, saying it has "the capacity for a big bomb" following five nuclear tests this week, according to an interview his office released today.

Indian officials have been careful to differentiate between their tests and weapons, saying only "devices" were tested at a desert range Monday and Wednesday. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said India had only peaceful nuclear intentions.India's five underground explosions this week touched off worldwide condemnation.

"India is now a nuclear weapons state," Vajpayee was quoted as saying in an interview Thursday. "We have the capacity for a big bomb now. Ours will never be weapons of aggression."

It was the first time India acknowledged being a nuclear weapons state, but observers had already said India was making a claim to enter the league of nuclear weapons states.

Those countries receive two key benefits: They are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which allows them influence in every international issue; and they can keep their nuclear weapons.

By declaring itself a nuclear state, India threatened to unravel the global system of nuclear weapons controls because all existing nuclear treaties are based on the assumption of the world having five declared nuclear states.

A transcript of Vajpayee's interview with India Today magazine was faxed to The Associated Press by the prime minister's office.

Vajpayee's government has insisted it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons but needed a deterrent because neighbors China and Pakistan - with whom it has fought a total of four wars - were nuclear powers.

Meanwhile, a delegation of U.S. officials arrived Friday in Pakistan in an effort to persuade the government not to respond to India's nuclear tests with a test of its own and risk launching the Asian subcontinent on a nuclear arms race.

The United States, Japan and other countries have slapped economic sanctions on India. While there was no immediate comment from the White House to Vajpayee's announcement, President Clinton said earlier today he would seek a "strong and unambiguous" denunciation of India's nuclear ambitions from world leaders at a three-day summit in Birmingham, England.