WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday released photographs of what it said was a Syrian nuclear reactor built with North Korean help, in an effort to pressure Pyongyang to fully disclose its nuclear activities.
The reactor was destroyed by Israel in a September 6 air strike that was initially shrouded in secrecy out of what the Bush administration said was fear that public discussion could prompt Syria, which has long supported militant Palestinian groups, to retaliate.
“We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syria’s covert nuclear activities,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.
“We have good reason to believe that reactor, which was damaged beyond repair on September 6 of last year, was not intended for peaceful purposes,” she said.
In detailed briefings to U.S. lawmakers and reporters, U.S. officials produced before-and-after aerial photographs of the suspected reactor in eastern Syria as well as detailed interior images that they said showed key parts of its components.
The United States did not give Israel any “green light” to strike the suspected nuclear reactor, a U.S. official said.
Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha denied the U.S. charge. “This is a fantasy,” he told CNN after being briefed by the U.S. State Department on the U.S. intelligence.
“I hope the truth will be revealed to everybody,” Moustapha said. “This will be a major embarrassment to the U.S. administration for a second time — they lied about Iraqi WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and they think they can do it again.”
Washington’s main justification for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs. Such weapons have not been found.
The White House statement, which did not mention Israel, said Syria had been building a “covert nuclear reactor” in its eastern desert that was capable of producing plutonium.
One of the photographs presented to lawmakers and reporters showed what U.S. intelligence officials described as a senior North Korean nuclear expert standing side by side with a key Syrian atomic official inside Syria.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said the suspected reactor closely resembled the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea.
The U.S. charges come several months after North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in October 2006, missed a December 31 deadline to make a declaration of its nuclear programs in a deal over its nuclear programs with the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea.
Under the deal North Korea promised to disclose all of its nuclear programs and, ultimately, to abandon them and any nuclear weapons it may have.
“We hope that the fact that we have had such detailed understanding of this activity ... will convince them that there is no point in trying to cover up not only proliferation activity but (uranium) enrichment activity and plutonium activity,” a senior U.S. official told reporters.
U.S. President George W. Bush has lost the support of some fellow Republicans on the North Korea deal, but the Democrats who control Congress by and large appear to be more supportive of the path he is following.
The United States has long been “seriously concerned” about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its proliferation activities, and Pyongyang’s cooperation with Syria was a “dangerous manifestation” of those activities, the White House said.
“The construction of this (Syrian) reactor was a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the region and the world,” Perino said.
That development also underscored the international community was right to be concerned about the nuclear activities of Iran and “must take further steps” to confront that challenge, she said.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said after a briefing on the issue that the administration had lost the trust of many lawmakers.
“This administration has no credibility on North Korea,” he told Reuters. “A lot of us are beginning to become concerned that the administration is moving away from getting a solid policy solution to ‘let’s make a deal’ — regardless of how bad it may be.”
Additional Reporting by Paul Eckert and Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by Patricia Wilson and Mohammad Zargham