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World News

IAEA chief, West clash over nuclear aid for Syria

VIENNA (Reuters) - The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief clashed with some Western nations on Monday over their bid to block aid for a planned Syrian nuclear power plant, saying U.S. intelligence pointing to secret Syrian atomic work was unproven.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad delivers a speech to the Arab members of parliament in Damascus, November 9, 2008. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Diplomats at a 35-nation meeting of International Atomic Energy Agency governors said Washington, major European Union nations and other Western allies favored shelving the project while Syria was under IAEA investigation over the U.S. reports.

China, Russia and developing nations rejected the Western challenge as “political interference” undermining the IAEA’s program to foster civilian atomic energy development.

Western nations were alarmed by an IAEA report last week saying a Syrian building demolished in an Israeli air raid last year bore similarities to a nuclear reactor and inspectors later found striking amounts of uranium particles in the area.

The findings were not enough to prove a covert reactor of North Korean design meant to yield plutonium for atom bombs was there, as U.S. intelligence indicated, the report said.

But further on-scene checks there and at several military sites in Syria, as well as Syrian cooperation with repeated requests for documentation to prove its denials of covert nuclear activity, were essential to draw conclusions, it said.

IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei urged governors to approve the aid project, saying there was no legal basis for curbing Syria’s IAEA membership rights based on unverified accusations.

“There are claims against Syria, which we’re looking at. There were claims against Iraq, which were proven bonkers (mad), and after, the result was a terrible war,” he said in remarks to the closed gathering relayed to Reuters.

U.S. assertions Saddam Hussein had a mass-destruction weapon program led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq but proved unfounded.

SYRIA “INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY”

“So we have to be very careful when we talk about an investigation,” ElBaradei said. “Even people who are not a lawyer would know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty. And we continue to act on that basis.”

The aid proposal stirring up the governors was a “technical and economic feasibility and site selection” study drafted by the IAEA Secretariat for a nuclear power station in Syria. It would cost $350,000 and run from 2009 to 2011.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the IAEA report showed it would be wrong to give technical advice to Syria to build a nuclear power station.

“It’s wholly inappropriate.., given the fact that Syria is under investigation by the IAEA for building a nuclear reactor outside the bounds of its international legal commitments.”

Cuba, speaking for non-aligned developing states on the board, said IAEA nuclear aid “should not be blocked, delayed or otherwise hindered for mere suspicion or unproven allegations.”

The U.S. position drew support in statements from Britain, France, Canada, Australia and the European Union.

But diplomats said EU states were not united over what to do if the matter came to a vote at U.S. behest later this week.

And since Russia, China and the non-aligned form a majority on the board, the question arose whether Washington would force a vote it looked unlikely to win or allow approval by consensus, the traditional way decisions are made at the IAEA.

In 2006, governors decided by consensus to strip Iran of an IAEA safety design study at a heavy-water reactor project over concerns the plant might be used to produce plutonium.

But that decision was legally clear-cut as Iran was under U.N. sanctions over non-compliance with IAEA rules for failing to declare proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment work and denying the IAEA full access to verify it was for peaceful ends.

Iran says the sanctions are illegal and that it is refining uranium for electricity, not weapons as the West suspects.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington

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