June 3, 2008 / 10:59 AM / 10 years ago

Syria says wants nuclear energy under Arab umbrella

DUBAI (Reuters) - Syria is not seeking nuclear weapons but wants to have access to atomic energy for peaceful purposes through a collective Arab project, President Bashar al-Assad said in remarks published on Tuesday.

A satellite image taken October 24, 2007 shows the site of a suspected nuclear facility in Syria apparently bombed by Israel last September. Washington says the reactor was nearing completion when it was destroyed in the Israeli air raid. Syria has denied it was building a reactor and has accused Washington of involvement in the air attack by Israel. REUTERS/DigitalGlobe/Handout

The Dubai-based Gulf News also quoted Assad as saying that the United States should have sought an investigation of a Syrian facility suspected of housing a secret nuclear plant before it was destroyed in an Israeli air raid last September.

“Acquiring nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is an international trend that all countries are rightfully pursuing. In Syria, we want this to be done within an Arab context, which was discussed and agreed during the Arab Summit in Riyadh,” he said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

Gulf Arabs have announced their own plans to develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes following a 2007 Arab summit that called on Arabs to develop atomic power.

U.S. intelligence officials in April said they believed Syria had built the suspected reactor with the assistance of North Korea, which later also helped in cleaning up the site after the Israeli strike.

Syria has denied having any undeclared nuclear program. It has one old research reactor subject to monitoring by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

“If anyone had a secret dossier on nuclear facilities in Syria with a Korean role, as they claim, then why did they wait for seven months before destroying a normal military facility by the Israeli raid?” Assad said. “Why did they not resort to the U.N. nuclear energy organization to carry out an inspection?”

FIRST IAEA INVESTIGATIVE TRIP TO SYRIA

The IAEA director, Mohamed ElBaradei, said on Monday a team from the U.N. nuclear watchdog will visit Syria June 22-24 to pursue an investigation into the suspected reactor site.

The United States urged Syria to cooperate with U.N. inspectors and to allow Syrian officials to be interviewed.

ElBaradei did not say whether Syria, which had not responded for months to IAEA requests for access, would allow U.N. investigators to examine the al-Kibar site in northeast Syria.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed ElBaradei waits for the start of a board of governors meeting in Vienna, June 2, 2008. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

But a senior diplomat close to the Vienna-based IAEA said a team led by its inspections director Olli Heinonen expected to go to al-Kibar and would seek information on, or access to, three other sites with a possible nuclear link.

Nuclear analysts, citing satellite photos, say Syria has razed and swept clean the al-Kibar area since the bombing and erected a new building over it, possibly to erase evidence.

He suggested the point in checking other sites was to look for indications of facilities to process nuclear material, based on the unverified U.S. intelligence, since there was no evidence of a plutonium fuel source next to the alleged reactor site.

Heinonen’s delegation will bring equipment designed to detect nuclear activity, the senior diplomat added.

Syria has not publicly confirmed the planned IAEA visit.

But a senior Syrian official told an Arab League meeting outside an IAEA governors’ conference in Vienna on Tuesday that the IAEA trip would go ahead and inspectors would get access to the al-Kibar site, said a diplomatic source familiar with the exchange.

The official, Syrian Atomic Energy Agency chief Ibrahim Othman, told Arab colleagues that Damascus has nothing to hide and he expected the IAEA to “close the file” after the trip, the diplomatic source told Reuters.

Reporting by Inal Ersan in Damascus and Mark Heinrich in Vienna; Editing by Sami Aboudi

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