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ElBaradei prods Syria on atom probe, cites pictures

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief prodded Syria on Thursday to open up military sites to investigators and said he would soon show Damascus satellite images which Washington says indicate covert atomic activity.

A November 19 International Atomic Energy Agency report said a Syrian building bombed to rubble by Israel in 2007 bore similarities to a nuclear reactor. Uranium traces, possibly remnants of pre-enriched atomic fuel, had been found nearby.

The findings, based on U.S. satellite intelligence and one on-site IAEA inspection, were preliminary, the report said, but further, broader IAEA access and Syrian documentation to prove its denials of illicit work were crucial to draw conclusions.

“For the agency to complete its assessment, maximum transparency by Syria and the full sharing with the agency of all relevant information which other states may have are essential,” IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei said.

He was alluding in particular to Israel, which has never commented on the nature of the site its air force took out.

“Syria should also agree, as a transparency measure, to let the agency visit other locations. I am confident modalities can be developed which will protect the confidentiality of military information,” he told a meeting of the IAEA governing board.

Last week, a senior Syrian official dismissed the notion of further IAEA visits as these would involve checks at three military bases Damascus deems off-limits on national security grounds, citing its state of war with Israel.

“BAFFLING” LACK OF KEY SATELLITE PICTURES

Inspectors believe these sites could harbor items, possibly for fabricating nuclear fuel, linked to the bombed site, or which may have been whisked away from it soon after the attack -- and after the IAEA asked for access to examine it.

ElBaradei said it was “regrettable, indeed baffling” why there was no high-resolution satellite imagery of the site available for the period right after the bombing.

That would have been before Syria carted away potentially relevant evidence like rubble and equipment, diplomats say.

Diplomats close to the inquiry said it was possible that the seven states with commercial satellite networks pulled pictures for that period from circulation for undetermined security reasons, or Syria had bought them up to impede investigators.

The seven countries are the United States, Israel, France, Russia, China, India and Japan, said a senior diplomat, who like others, asked for anonymity because they were discussing restricted information.

ElBaradei said the IAEA recently won permission to show Syria some pictures from member state satellites taken of the site “shortly after the bombing” to elicit a response. He did not say what they showed or how sharp the images were.

One diplomat said the IAEA recently had found some pictures from the attack aftermath but they were not high-resolution.

ElBaradei cautioned that satellite pictures were no panacea in difficult nuclear investigations. “Because the agency cannot verify the authenticity of such imagery, we rely on it only as an auxiliary source to corroborate other information ... It is never the sole basis of our assessments,” he told the governors.

Syria has said Israel’s target was a conventional military building, the U.S. intelligence was forged and the uranium particles came with munitions used in Israel’s air raid.

The U.S. intelligence report asserts that Syria was close to completing an illicitly undeclared reactor with North Korean technical help, designed to produce plutonium for atom bombs, when Israeli warplanes struck in September 2007.

Separately, ElBaradei urged Iran to stop impeding an agency probe into intelligence material that Washington says shows Tehran illicitly studied how to design atom bombs. Iran denies this but has not provided back-up evidence, the IAEA says.

Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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