Syria allows probe of alleged nuclear site

June 2, 2008 9:25:06 AM PDT
Syria will allow in U.N. inspectors to probe allegations that the country was building a nuclear reactor at a remote site destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Monday. IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei did not say whether his inspectors would be granted access to the site during the planned June 22-24 visit. But a senior diplomat familiar with the details of the planned visit said agency personnel had been told they could visit the facility. The diplomat said agency experts were also interested in two other locations with possible undeclared nuclear facilities.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told The Associated Press that agency experts will be asking for information on the possible existence of two plutonium reprocessing facilities.

Syrian officials in Damascus did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Syria would need plutonium reprocessing capabilities if it were - as the U.S. and Israel charge - trying to build produce material for the fissile core of nuclear weapons.

Another diplomat familiar with the IAEA trip plans said there were three other possible nuclear sites about which the IAEA was seeking information.

A third diplomat briefed on the IAEA plans for the trip said the agency had been informed about the possible additional sites by the U.S. That diplomat said the IAEA had not seen the U.S. intelligence itself.

The Syrians have already been informed about the additional suspicions, said the third diplomat.

The Israelis carried out the airstrike against the Syrian site in September. Neither the United States nor Israel gave the IAEA information about the site until late April, about a year after they obtained what they considered to be decisive intelligence: dozens of photographs from a handheld camera that showed both the interior and exterior of the compound in Syria's eastern desert.

Since that time, Syria had not reacted to repeated agency requests for a visit to check out the allegations, using the interval to erect another structure over the site - a move that heightened suspicions of a possible cover-up.

ElBaradei repeated his criticism of Israel and the United States in announcing the Syrian visit, taking Washington to task for waiting so long to brief him on its suspicions, and Jerusalem for its air strike.

"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," ElBaradei said. His comments to the closed meeting were made available to reporters.

ElBaradei noted that Syria "has an obligation to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility to the agency."

ElBaradei also reiterated criticism for withholding full cooperation with the IAEA's probe of activities that point to a possible clandestine weapons program.

"It is regrettable that we have not made the progress we had hoped for," he said, adding that the alleged activities "remain a matter of serious concern."

"Iran has not provided the agency with all the access to documents and to individuals requested ... nor has Iran provided the substantive explanations required to support its statements," he said. "Such clarifications are critical to an assessment of the nature of Iran's past and present nuclear program."

ElBaradei also said his agency "understands that Iran may have additional information" it was withholding from IAEA experts - an allegation also made in his report last week to the agency board and the U.N. Security Council.

Since launching its probe into the allegations last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency has asked in vain for substantive explanations for what seem to be draft plans to refit missiles with nuclear warheads; explosives tests that could be used for a nuclear detonation; military and civilian nuclear links and a drawing showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of warheads.

Iran remains defiant, dismissing evidence from the U.S. and other board members purportedly backing the allegations as fabricated.

It is also under fire for defying three sets of Security Council sanctions and continuing to enrich uranium - a process that can generate both nuclear fuel and the fissile material for the core of nuclear warheads.