December 2, 2010 / 1:14 PM / 9 years ago

U.N. nuclear chief steps up pressure over Syria site

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear agency chief said on Thursday he had formally urged Syria to provide his inspectors with speedy access to the remains of a suspected nuclear site, signaling growing frustration over the issue.

For more than two years Syria has blocked International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to the remains of a desert site that U.S. intelligence reports say was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce bomb fuel.

The site, known as either al-Kibar or Dair Alzour, was bombed to rubble by Israel in 2007. Syria, an ally of Iran, denies ever having an atom bomb program.

In a report last month Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director general, said Syria was not allowing U.N. nuclear inspectors to visit numerous suspect sites, and had provided scant or inconsistent information about its atomic activities.

On Thursday, he told the IAEA’s 35-nation governing board he had written a letter to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on November 18, the first time the IAEA chief has appealed to Syrian authorities directly, rather than just through his reports.

He asked the government to provide prompt IAEA access to relevant information and locations related to Dair Alzour and to cooperate with the agency in general, Amano told the closed-door meeting, according to a copy of his speech.

A diplomat close to the probe said the letter reflected the “growing urgency” of the matter.

Earlier this year the IAEA gave some weight to suspicions of illicit nuclear work at the site by saying that uranium traces found during a 2008 visit by inspectors pointed to nuclear-related activity.

NO PROGRESS

The agency wants to re-examine Dair Alzour so it can take samples from rubble removed immediately after the air strike.

Washington has said the IAEA may need to consider invoking its “special inspection” mechanism to give it the authority to look anywhere necessary in Syria at short notice.

But diplomats and analysts believe the IAEA will refrain from escalating the dispute at a time of rising tension with Iran, which the West suspects of seeking nuclear weapons.

Amano said he would not speculate on what would happen if Syria did not respond to his request for cooperation.

The agency last resorted to special inspection powers in 1993 in North Korea, which still withheld access and later developed a nuclear explosive capacity in secret.

Syria says the IAEA does not need to go back to Dair Alzour because it already has proof it was a non-nuclear military site. It has also suggested uranium particles found at the site came from Israeli weapons or were dropped from the air, an assertion dismissed by the West.

The IAEA also wants access to three other Syrian sites under military control whose appearance was altered by landscaping after inspectors asked to visit.

Amano said Syria had not cooperated with the IAEA since June 2008 over Dair Alzour and other sites.

“As a consequence, the agency has not been able to make progress toward resolving the outstanding issues related to those sites,” he said in Thursday’s speech.

Editing by Kevin Liffey

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