Syria tells U.N. atom body: focus on Israel, not us

VIENNA Fri Dec 3, 2010 2:18pm EST

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Syria dismissed on Friday calls to grant U.N. nuclear inspectors prompt access to the remains of a suspected nuclear site bombed to rubble by Israel, saying they should focus their investigation on the Jewish state instead.

Damascus's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Washington's suggestion that the IAEA could seek broader inspection powers to enable it to examine sites in Syria was "nonsense" and he did not believe it was likely.

"I think it is an agenda which some countries are pursuing," Bassam Al-Sabbagh told Reuters on the sidelines of a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board. "It is the time for dialogue and cooperation which is going on between Syria and the agency."

For more than two years Syria has blocked IAEA access to the remains of a facility in the desert which U.S. intelligence reports say was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce bomb fuel.

The site, known as either al-Kibar or Dair Alzour, was bombed to pieces by Israel in 2007. Syria, an ally of Iran, denies ever having had an atom bomb program.

The IAEA visited it in 2008 but wants follow-up access to take samples from the remains which could help its probe.

Washington hinted again on Friday that the IAEA may need to consider invoking its "special inspection" mechanism to give it authority to look anywhere necessary in Syria at short notice if Damascus did not cooperate with the agency's requests.

"Absent that cooperation, the United States believes the (IAEA) board will have little choice but to consider appropriate action," U.S. envoy Glyn Davies said. He said countries needed to take steps in the coming months to "preserve the credibility of the IAEA and the international safeguards regime."

SPECIAL INSPECTION?

Earlier this year the IAEA gave some weight to suspicions of illicit nuclear work at Dair Alzour, saying that uranium traces found during the last visit pointed to nuclear-related activity.

In a report last month IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said Syria was not allowing inspectors to visit numerous suspect sites and had provided scant or inconsistent information about its atomic activities.

Amano said on Thursday he had urged Syria in a letter to provide his inspectors with prompt access to Dair Alzour, which Damascus says is a non-nuclear military site.

But Al-Sabbagh said the IAEA should turn its attention to Israeli sites. Syria has suggested the uranium traces came with Israeli munitions used in the attack.

The IAEA says it is unlikely that they were of a type of uranium sometimes used in munitions as a hardening agent.

"I think it is time now for the agency to visit the Israeli sites which were used for preparations for the attack ... it is time for the agency to move on the Israeli side," he said, when asked if Syria would grant the IAEA's request for access.

Arab states as well as Iran say Israel poses a threat to regional stability, with its presumed atomic arsenal -- the only Middle East country to have such arms. Israel neither confirms nor denies it has nuclear weapons.

Highlighting growing Western frustration, the European Union told the IAEA meeting it had "deep concern" over Syria's stance.

The IAEA has struggled to get Syria to open up because the country's basic safeguards treaty with the agency covers only its one declared atomic facility, an old research reactor.

Diplomats and analysts believe the IAEA will avoid escalating the dispute at a time of rising tension with Iran, which the West suspects of seeking nuclear weapons.

The agency last resorted to special inspection powers in 1993 in North Korea, which still withheld access and later developed a nuclear bomb capacity in secret.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

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