Syria offers nuclear cooperation, IAEA says

VIENNA Mon Sep 12, 2011 11:45am EDT

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Syria has offered to cooperate with a U.N. nuclear watchdog probe into a suspected reactor site after years of stonewalling, and a meeting on the issue has been proposed for October, the Vienna-based agency's head said on Monday.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano said he was hoping to get "full information" about the desert site of Dair Alzour, which was bombed by Israel in 2007.

Western diplomats have expressed caution about previous offers of cooperation from Damascus.

U.S. intelligence reports have said the Dair Alzour complex was a nascent, North Korean-designed reactor intended to produce plutonium for atomic weaponry, before Israeli warplanes reduced it to rubble.

Syria has said it was a non-nuclear military facility, but Amano said he stood by an IAEA conclusion earlier this year that the destroyed site was "very likely" to have been a nuclear reactor which should have been declared to the agency.

In June, the IAEA board of governors voted to report Syria to the U.N. Security Council, rebuking it for failing to cooperate with the agency's efforts to get concrete information on Dair Alzour and other sites.

Russia and China opposed the referral, highlighting divisions among the major powers.

It was the first time the governing board of the IAEA -- the Vienna-based U.N. body tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons -- referred a country to the Security Council since it sent Iran's file there five years ago.

The move coincided with a continuing crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Syria.

Some Vienna-based Western diplomats have suggested that the turmoil inside the Arab state could further complicate efforts to get Damascus to cooperate on the nuclear issue.

Addressing the IAEA's board on Monday, Amano said Syria in a letter last month had "stated its readiness to have a meeting with agency safeguards staff in Damascus in October," according to a copy of his statement released to the media.

The Syrian letter said the purpose of the talks would be to "agree on an action plan to resolve the outstanding issues" regarding the Dair Alzour facility, Amano added.

The IAEA had proposed that the meeting take place on Oct 10-11 "with the aim of advancing the agency's verification mission in Syria," Amano said.

Syria, an ally of Iran, denies harbouring a nuclear weapons program.

Shortly before the IAEA board voted in June to refer the case to the Security Council, Syria offered to fully cooperate with the agency, after earlier rebuffing repeated requests for access to Dair Alzour.

Western diplomats dismissed this at the time as a tactical maneuver and said it was important for the board to act as it would also send a warning signal to other countries such as Iran.

The IAEA board reported Iran to the Security Council in 2006 over its failure to dispel suspicions it was trying to develop atomic arms. Tehran has since been hit with four rounds of U.N. sanctions over its refusal to halt sensitive nuclear work.

(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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