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U.N. nuclear team inspect bombed site in Syria

VIENNA (Reuters) - U.N. nuclear inspectors on Monday examined an alleged nuclear site in Syria that the United States says housed a secretly built reactor nearing completion when it was bombed by Israel nine months ago, a diplomat said.

Syria denies it has any covert nuclear weapons programme and says the Israelis hit an ordinary military structure being built at al-Kibar, in the northeastern desert.

Neither Syria nor the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has issued any information about the visit of the inspectors since they arrived in Damascus on Sunday.

“The visit (to the alleged nuclear site) is today,” said a senior diplomat in Europe familiar with the IAEA.

The diplomat later told Reuters the inspectors had reached the site and examined it.

The source gave no further details but diplomats said earlier they were expecting to spend the day at al-Kibar.

The team led by Olli Heinonen, head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s global inspectorate, was also due to hold talks with Syrian officials before returning to Vienna on Wednesday.

Syria’s silence on the visit, which it agreed with the IAEA on June 5, indicates how sensitive the issue is for President Bashar al-Assad, who has yet to retaliate for the Israeli raid.

The IAEA put Syria on its proliferation watch list in April after receiving intelligence photographs from the United States said to show a reactor that could have yielded plutonium, a nuclear bomb fuel.

Washington said Syria, an ally of Iran whose own nuclear programme has been under IAEA investigation since 2003, had almost completed the plant with North Korean help. Pyongyang evaded IAEA checks and test-exploded a nuclear device in 2006.

Syrian officials have accused the United States of fabricating evidence in collusion with Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power.

U.S. nuclear analysts say satellite images since the Israeli strike show the bombed site had been razed and a new building erected there, perhaps to cleanse traces of nuclear activity.

Syria has resisted IAEA requests to visit three other sites to check for facilities that would be necessary for the alleged reactor but which are missing from the U.S. images of al-Kibar, diplomats in Vienna say. Damascus describes the three sites as conventional military bases irrelevant to the IAEA inquiry.

Damascus has denied concealing anything from the IAEA in possible violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has condemned the Israeli raid and criticised the United States for failing to share its intelligence material on Syria with his agency much earlier.

But he has dampened expectations that the IAEA will find conclusive evidence so long after the September 6 bombing.

“It is doubtful that we will find anything there now, assuming there was anything there in the first place.”

ElBaradei said last week there was no evidence that Syria, whose only declared nuclear facility is an antiquated research reactor subject to IAEA monitoring, had the skills or fuel to run a major nuclear complex. Washington disputes this.

Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in London; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Giles Elgood