VIENNA An International Atomic Energy Agency inquiry into Syria's nuclear activity has been set back by the August assassination of the IAEA's main Syrian contact, the U.N. watchdog's chief said on Thursday.
Diplomats familiar with the matter identified the official as Brigadier General Mohammad Suleiman, 49, a senior security adviser to President Bashar al-Assad. A sniper shot him dead on a Mediterranean beach, Syrian opposition websites said.
"The assassination of the IAEA's main interlocutor has made our inquiry more difficult," agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei said during a closed-door meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation governing board on the status of the Syria investigation.
ElBaradei did not identify the interlocutor. But a senior diplomat with knowledge of the inquiry said it was Suleiman who had escorted U.N. inspectors during their first and so only investigative visit to Syria in June.
"His murder made the IAEA's job that much harder. Suleiman knew what was what and had the ability to deliver things," the diplomat said, alluding to access and answers to questions.
Israeli media said Suleiman was a central figure in an alleged secret nuclear program the United States accused Syria of pursuing after Israeli warplanes destroyed a desert complex that Washington said was a nascent plutonium-producing reactor.
Damascus did not comment. But officials have said the site was only an ordinary military building and accused the United States of doctoring intelligence including satellite photos suggesting Syria had hidden nuclear activity from the IAEA.
The IAEA, whose six-year effort to resolve questions about Iran's secretive nuclear activity has reached an impasse, began probing Syria in May after Washington forwarded intelligence suggesting that the site targeted by Israel was an almost-completed reactor built with North Korean expertise.
Earlier, U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte urged ElBaradei to give a full written report on an inquiry into allegations Syria had a covert program to produce bomb-grade plutonium.
In an opening address on Monday, ElBaradei briefly summarized the probe, saying it was inconclusive so far.
"Given the gravity of this issue for the (nuclear non-proliferation) safeguards regime, the United States looks forward to a comprehensive report for the November board meeting detailing, in writing, the status of the investigation in Syria, and Syria's cooperation with the investigation," said Schulte.
"Syria's failure to cooperate with inspectors in a full and timely manner is a matter of serious concern," he said.
In response, ElBaradei said Israel's destruction of the site and a seven-month delay before U.S. intelligence was passed to the IAEA would make it very difficult to determine the truth.
"The corpse is gone," he said, referring to the bombed target's remains. ElBaradei said he had urged Syria to be more transparent but suggested the IAEA must not be stampeded by Western critics to resolve the mystery.
ElBaradei said the first set of environmental swipe samples taken at the bombed site in June turned up no indications of nuclear material. Full results were due in 2-3 weeks.
Syrian Ambassador Badi Khattab denied Damascus had been obstructing IAEA access or dodging questions.
"It took us less than a month to invite inspectors to the site after the first request came," he said in an interview.
"We reached an understanding with the IAEA that they would take samples at al-Kibar and then once they delivered to us the final analysis, we will discuss further developments," he said.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)