IAEA sets Syria nuclear activity mission

VIENNA Mon Jun 2, 2008 4:37pm BST

International Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei speaks during the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East in Sharm el-Sheikh, May 19, 2008. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

International Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei speaks during the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East in Sharm el-Sheikh, May 19, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

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VIENNA (Reuters) - A U.N. nuclear watchdog team will visit Syria from June 22-24 to pursue an investigation into U.S. intelligence alleging that Damascus secretly built an atomic reactor, the agency's chief said on Monday.

The reported reactor site was destroyed in an Israeli air raid last September and Washington handed over intelligence to the International Atomic Energy Agency in April for verification purposes. Syria has denied any covert nuclear arms project.

"It has now been agreed that an agency team will visit Syria during the period 22-24 of June. I look forward to Syria's full cooperation in this matter," IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei told a meeting of the agency's 35-nation Board of Governors.

He did not say whether Syria, which had not responded for months to IAEA requests for access, would allow U.N. investigators to examine the al-Kibar site in the country's remote northeast desert.

Diplomats said earlier the IAEA would not send investigators to Syria without guarantees they could inspect the bombed area.

A Western diplomat said the Vienna-based U.N. watchdog, which also has a long-running investigation into Iran's nuclear programme, wanted to visit not just al-Kibar but two other sites with possible nuclear dimensions.

ElBaradei had said on May 7 that he hoped to be able to shed light "in the next few weeks" on whether the Syrian facility was a nuclear reactor that should have been declared to the IAEA under Damascus's Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations.

SYRIAN DENIALS

Syria, an ally of Iran, has rejected as fabricated U.S. intelligence pointing to an almost completed graphite reactor erected with the help of North Korea, which left the NPT in 2003 and test-detonated a nuclear device in 2006.

Commenting on the planned IAEA investigative mission, a senior Western diplomat told Reuters: "The board expects Syria to provide full cooperation and access and we hope to have a report from ElBaradei for the next board meeting in September."

ElBaradei again chided the United States and Israel for waiting until last month to share intelligence with the IAEA.

"It is deeply regrettable that information concerning this installation was not provided to the agency in a timely manner and that force was resorted to unilaterally before the agency was given an opportunity to establish the facts," he said.

"Nonetheless, I should emphasise that Syria, like all states with comprehensive (nuclear) safeguards agreements, has an obligation to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility to the agency," he said.

"We are therefore treating this information with the seriousness it deserves and have been in discussions with the Syrian authorities ... to verify, to the extent possible at this stage, the veracity of the information available."

Damascus, whose only declared nuclear facility is an old research reactor under IAEA monitoring, has said Israel's target was only a disused military building that had no nuclear link.

Washington said the reactor had been designed to yield plutonium fuel for nuclear weapons.

Analysts, citing satellite photos, say Syria has razed and swept clean the al-Kibar site since the Israeli air strike and erected a new building over it, possibly to erase evidence.

They say it is unlikely U.N. inspectors would uncover major components of a reactor or related equipment, but they would want to test for traces of graphite or uranium alloys and examine the local water supply system.

A report by independent nuclear experts briefed by U.S. officials said Syria went to great lengths to foil aerial surveillance by building a false roof and walls to alter the normal telltale contours of a reactor.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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