April 29, 2011 / 2:02 PM / 8 years ago

U.N. atom watchdog may clamp down on Syria: sources

VIENNA (Reuters) - U.N. inspectors may say in an upcoming report that a Syrian desert site bombed to rubble in 2007 was probably a covert nuclear reactor, opening the way for the U.N. Security Council to take up the case, diplomats said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said there are indications nuclear activity may have taken place at the Dair Alzour site, but the next report could use more pointed wording, according to diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based.

Diplomats said it was not clear whether a Security Council referral would come at an IAEA meeting in June and that it could take much longer for possible action, especially given recent unrest in Syria which had complicated the picture.

Thousands of Syrians called Friday for the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad, according to activists. The European Union may seek sanctions against the regime because of the crackdown on demonstrations that have been going on for more than a month.

Assad has said Syria will continue to deny the IAEA follow-up access to the desert site on grounds of state sovereignty. U.S. intelligence reports say the site was a nascent plutonium-producing reactor designed by North Korea and meant to yield bomb fuel.

The IAEA declined to comment on the next report, which will be prepared for its 35-nation governing board in June.

The board has the power to refer countries to the Security Council if they are judged to have broken IAEA rules based on the global Non-Proliferation Treaty that ban diversions of nuclear technology to weapons development.

STOPPING THE STONEWALLING

Israeli warplanes wrecked the site in September 2007 and Syria has allowed IAEA investigators to visit it only once, in June 2008, stonewalling all further requests for access. Syria, an ally of Iran, denies ever having a nuclear weapons program.

“There is a discussion in the agency about whether to make a final evaluation on Syria about what it constructed at Dair Alzour,” one diplomat accredited to the IAEA said.

If there is an assessment, it is possible the IAEA will say in the report there is a “high degree of confidence” the site was a nuclear reactor or something similar, the diplomat said.

Diplomats said the IAEA was unlikely to make a definitive, final assessment due to a lack of further access to the site. They also said the report had not been drafted but that discussions were taking place.

“The agency is reflecting on how to get out of the impasse,” one diplomat said. Another said pressure was building on Syria and that the IAEA board could not allow Damascus to continue stalling the agency’s investigation.

The board referred Iran to the Security Council in 2006 over its failure to clarify suspicions of illicit work on developing nuclear weapons. Tehran has denied seeking atom bombs but has refused to curb uranium enrichment and has been hit with an escalating series of Security Council sanctions.

Damascus has suggested the uranium traces uncovered at the site after the one-off IAEA visit came with Israeli munitions used in the attack. The agency has dismissed this as unlikely.

Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas in Paris; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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