Syria refuses another visit by U.N. nuclear investigators

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria said Saturday it would bar U.N. nuclear investigators from revisiting a site bombed by Israeli jets on suspicion it was a secretly built atomic reactor.

The move dealt a blow to International Atomic Energy Agency efforts to follow up on intelligence indicating Syria was hiding a nuclear program that could be used to make weapons.

Syria denies it has hidden nuclear facilities.

A Foreign Ministry official told reporters Syria's agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog -- which already inspected the site in June -- allowed only one visit. The official, who was not authorized to speak to the media, spoke on condition of anonymity.

The statement appeared to be prompted by comments made by diplomats accredited to the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA, who said earlier Saturday that Syria late last month turned down a request from the agency for a follow-up trip.

A return to the bombed facility -- alleged by the U.S. to have been a nearly completed plutonium-producing reactor -- would have been on the IAEA agenda. Plutonium can be used as the fissile core of warheads.

But a second trip also was meant to focus on the broader issue of North Korean involvement in building the alleged Syrian program.

IAEA officials would also have pressed for permission to visit three other sites purportedly linked to the alleged reactor destroyed by the Israelis, although Syria has already said those locations are off limits because they are in restricted military areas.

The diplomats said the agency probe is based on intelligence provided the IAEA by the U.S., Israel and a third country they declined to identify.

In Vienna, a senior diplomat said "the Syrians said that a visit at this time was inopportune." He and two others agreeing to discuss the issue demanded anonymity because their information was confidential.

That appeared to leave open the possibility of a later inspection tour. But one of the other diplomats said members of the Syrian mission to the IAEA were spreading the word among other missions that additional trips beyond the one in June were unlikely.

Syria fears the IAEA probe could lead to a massive investigation similar to the probe of its ally Iran has been subjected to more than five years. Iran is under three sets of U.N. sanctions because of its refusal to heed Security Council demands to curb its nuclear activities.

The diplomats also said Washington had circulated a note among members of the IAEA board opposing a Syrian push for a seat on the 35-nation board. The board normally works by consensus and if Damascus gained a seat it would likely use it to try and hinder further investigation into its alleged secret nuclear activities.

"Syria's election to the board while under investigation for secretly ... building an undeclared nuclear reactor not suited for peaceful purposes would make a mockery" of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, said the note, as read to the AP.

The IAEA diplomats said the U.S. was encouraging Kazakhstan to challenge Damascus for the seat, but the Kazakhs apparently are reluctant to do so, fearing lack of support from its nominating group of Mideast and Central Asian nations.

IAEA experts came back June 25 from a four-day visit to Syria, carrying environmental samples from the Al Kibar site hit by Israel in September. Those are now being evaluated but the results might be inconclusive.

Because intelligence suggests that radioactive material had not yet been introduced into the alleged Al Kibar reactor before it was hit by Israel, a traditional method at suspected nuclear sites -- taking swipes in the search for radioactive traces -- was unlikely to have been of use.

So, the inspectors also looked for minute quantities of graphite, a cooling element in the type of North Korean prototype that was allegedly being built with help from North Korea. Such a reactor contains hundreds of tons of graphite, and any major explosion would have sent dust over the immediate area.

But -- if the Syrians were interested in a cover-up -- they would have scoured the region to bury, wash away and otherwise remove any such traces. And although U.S. intelligence says the reactor was close to completion, it is possible that graphite elements were not yet installed at the time of the Sept. 6 bombing.

Such uncertainties -- and IAEA hopes of being able to visit the other suspected sites -- dictated the need for a follow-up mission.

More broadly, IAEA experts were looking to put questions to Syrian officials based on the intelligence available to them alleging years of extensive cooperation between the Syrians and teams of visiting North Korean nuclear officials.

North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006. The North is believed by experts to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 10 nuclear bombs before agreeing to dismantle its weapons program early last year.

But the diplomats said Syria was strenuously denying any concerted North Korean presence in the country -- despite intelligence alleging that the building bombed was a reactor of the type only built by the communist state.

They said Syrian officials described meetings between nuclear officials from North Korea and their Syrian counterparts occasional and informal, despite intelligence information to the contrary.


George Jahn reported from Vienna, Austria.

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