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U.N. nuclear inspectors arrive in Syria

VIENNA (Reuters) - Senior U.N. inspectors arrived in Syria on Sunday to investigate U.S. allegations that Damascus was building a clandestine nuclear reactor for military purposes before an Israel air strike destroyed it in September.

An undated image released by the U.S. Government shows the suspected Syrian nuclear reactor building under construction in Syria. REUTERS/U.S. Government/Handout

Syria denies the accusations, saying the remote desert site housed an ordinary military building under construction.

Washington says the project at al-Kibar was camouflaged to hide its nature and Western nuclear analysts say satellite pictures taken since the September 6 bombing show it was bulldozed in a possible effort to remove incriminating evidence.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has indicated that uncovering the truth at this stage could be difficult.

The IAEA team in Damascus is led by Olli Heinonen, head of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog’s global inspectorate, and includes two nuclear technology experts familiar with Syria.

“We have our first meeting this afternoon. So we will start establishing the facts this evening,” Heinonen told reporters at Vienna airport regarding the team’s talks with Syrian officials.

The inspectors travelled on an Austrian Airlines flight which the airline said landed in Syria shortly before 3 pm (1:00 pm British time).

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They were due to have talks in Damascus and make a day trip to al-Kibar, the bombed site in northeastern Syria, before returning to Vienna on Wednesday.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has condemned the raid by Israel -- which is widely believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power after secretly building around 200 nuclear warheads -- saying it undermined the agency’s mandate.

“We will do everything in our power to clear things up,” ElBaradei has said.

But, still fuming over Israel’s military action and the tardiness of U.S. intelligence-sharing, he added: “It is doubtful that we will find anything there now, assuming there was anything there in the first place.”

PROLIFERATION WATCH LIST

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 fuel for plutonium bombs.

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.

Follow-up IAEA missions to Syria will be necessary to get to the bottom of the mystery, Western diplomats and analysts say.

ElBaradei said this week there is 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.

Syria has denied concealing anything from the IAEA in possible violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed. It has said the U.S. photos were fabricated or doctored.

Damascus told the IAEA two weeks ago it would cooperate with the inquiry and grant access to the desolate al-Kibar site.

Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Lyon

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