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U.S. and EU fear Syria "sanitised" alleged nuclear sites

VIENNA (Reuters) - The United States and the European Union said Friday they were disturbed by apparent Syrian efforts to “sanitise” sites U.N. inspectors want to examine in a probe into alleged covert nuclear activity.

Washington accused Damascus of adopting Iranian tactics to impede a nuclear watchdog investigation into what U.S. officials say was a secret atomic reactor that could have made plutonium for atom bombs if Israel had not bombed the site last year.

A November 19 International Atomic Energy Agency report said satellite imagery of the site revealed a layout resembling that of a reactor. Traces of uranium, or nuclear fuel, were found by inspectors allowed to scour the Al-Kibar site in June.

The IAEA’s director urged Syria Thursday to heed multiple agency requests for a return trip to Al-Kibar and to three military sites, as well as documentation about their uses, to help inspectors draw conclusions about what they were.

U.S. and EU envoys told a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors that Syria needed to clarify why Syria had landscaped all four sites and removed objects after inspectors asked to see them, as revealed by satellite pictures.

U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte said the pictures, which inspectors screened last week for governors, offered “dramatic evidence that Syria took immediate steps to sanitise” the locations in question.

Syria has dismissed the intelligence as fabrications and ruled out more inspection visits on national security grounds.

“So far Syria seems to be testing the tactics of hindrance and unhelpfulness that Iran has so finely honed,” U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte told the closed-door gathering.

The IAEA says Iran is stonewalling a longer-running 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 U.N. watchdog says.


Syria’s top envoy reiterated to the meeting that the site Israel hit was a conventional military building. He also ruled expanded IAEA inspections on national security grounds.

Still, a diplomat close to the IAEA said it had resumed contacts with Syria about follow-up steps in the investigation and the next agency report would be issued in February.

An official summary of the meeting said some members -- an allusion to developing nations who comprise half the board -- complained that tardy sharing of intelligence and Israel’s “unilateral use of force” had severely hampered the inquiry.

Western delegations said that, given Syria’s assertion that the uranium traces came with missiles used to destroy Al-Kibar, the only way to verify their origin was to let the IAEA examine debris and equipment whisked away from the desert site.

Schulte said the case underlined the IAEA’s limitations in a country that has not ratified the Additional Protocol, a crucial tool in detecting clandestine nuclear behaviour since it permits short-notice inspections beyond declared nuclear sites.

“Syria is one state that declined to adopt the protocol. Perhaps we now understand why,” he said.

Schulte and French Ambassador Francois-Xavier Deniaud, speaking for the European Union, urged Syria to embrace the protocol to help rebuild confidence in its intentions.

Syria has ruled this out as long as Israel refuses to do so as well as join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, the only one in the Middle East.

Editing by Richard Williams