Syria rejects more IAEA visits for nuclear probe

VIENNA Fri Nov 21, 2008 5:38pm EST

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Syria said on Friday a U.N. watchdog report failed to show anything suggesting a Syrian complex bombed by Israel was a covert nuclear reactor and no further inspector visits would be permitted.

Syrian nuclear energy chief Ibrahim Othman challenged the International Atomic Energy Agency report saying the building's layout bore similarities to a reactor and U.N. inspectors had found striking amounts of uranium particles in the desert area.

The findings, based on satellite pictures and soil and water samples, were not enough to conclude a reactor was once there, the IAEA said, but they warranted further IAEA checks at the site and three others as well as full Syrian transparency.

Othman, speaking after an IAEA briefing to its 35-nation governing board about the report, repeated Syria's stance that Israel's target was only a conventional military building.

"What they are now saying about uranium particles -- collecting three particles from the desert is not enough to say there was a reactor there at all," he told reporters, speaking English in Syria's first public reaction to Wednesday's report.

"If every square or rectangular or domed building was a reactor, then there are a lot of reactors in the world.

"Now, I think to follow up there should be a good reason to say there is something there. In our opinion this file should be closed," said Othman, head of Syria's atomic energy commission. Syria has one declared atomic facility, an old research reactor.

He said Syria would stick by a written accord with the IAEA that allowed for only one visit to the Al-Kibar site -- which took place last June -- and "we will not allow another visit."

The IAEA report said Syria had not heeded requests for documentation about the function of the building destroyed in an Israeli air raid last year or repeated requests to visit three other military sites believed to be linked to Al-Kibar.

REPORT CONVINCING, SAYS U.S.

"The report reinforces the assessment of my government that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor in its eastern desert and thereby violating its IAEA (non-proliferation) safeguards obligations," Gregory Schulte, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said in a statement earlier on Friday.

Pressed on whether Syria was slamming the door to further contact with the IAEA over the probe, Othman said, "No, no. If the information required belongs to the accusation, then we will supply it," suggesting there could be more discussions.

But he poured cold water on the prospect of inspections of more sites he said were conventional military installations Syria could not afford to expose given its official state of war with Israel, which has an undeclared nuclear arsenal.

"I'm pointing out these are military positions, buildings, activities, and remind you all we are still in a war in the Middle East," Othman said.

He said Syria would continue cooperation with the IAEA but only under its basic safeguards agreement with the agency, which provides for inspections only at declared atomic sites.

At Friday's briefing, diplomats said, the IAEA's chief inspector screened satellite pictures of the three other Syrian sites taken at different times to show they had been landscaped to alter their look after the agency first asked to visit them.

"The images were weak, though. You couldn't tell what was going on there," said a European diplomat.

Syria's tough line set the stage for confrontation at the year-end meeting of the agency's governors next week.

Diplomats said the United States and some allies were considering blocking approval of Syria's bid for IAEA technical aid in planning a nuclear power plant. Washington might also seek a board resolution demanding Syrian cooperation, they said.

Both moves would be resisted by developing nations who oppose "politicizing" IAEA work based on unverified allegations.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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