Late US tip-off hurts UN Syria atom probe

United Nations inspectors set to examine a Syrian site for signs of a secret nuclear reactor project may find little in part because of tardy intelligence-sharing by Washington, their chief said in remarks published on Monday.

But Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he still expected “absolute transparency” from Syria and the IAEA would insist on access to other sites which might be linked to the alleged reactor.

The IAEA began an investigation after receiving US intelligence material in April, seven months after the purported reactor was destroyed in an Israeli air strike and seven years after Washington said the project began.

Syria denies the allegations. Satellite pictures taken since the bombing show the site was bulldozed and swept clean in a possible cover-up, according to nuclear analysts. Damascus has also rebuffed IAEA requests for wider access, diplomats say.

“We will do whatever is in our power to clarify [what the Syrians did],” ElBaradei told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, referring to the June 22 to 24 investigative mission to be led by his deputy in charge of nuclear safeguards.

“I take these accusations very seriously.
I demanded that our inspectors be able to establish a picture on the spot ... But it is questionable whether we will still find anything today, assuming something was ever there,” he said.

‘Unacceptable’
ElBaradei said no one had passed on suspicious information to the IAEA until well after the Israeli bombing “even though, as we now know, there was some already a year beforehand”.

“Pictures of the plant and its destruction were first made available to us at the same time as to the US Congress. That is unacceptable. I protested over this in the sharpest way.”

Still, he said, “I expect absolute transparency from Damascus, also when it comes to other places where its components could have been delivered. If concerns remain, we will note these in our report.”

Analysts say Washington chose not to release intelligence earlier because of the risk this might prompt Syria to retaliate against Israel, igniting a new Middle East war.

Damascus says Israel’s target was a disused military building, whereas the United States says it was a camouflaged reactor designed to yield plutonium for atomic bombs.

ElBaradei also said Iran was evading “pressing questions” about intelligence reports that it clandestinely researched ways of devising a nuclear weapon.

Iran has said it is enriching uranium only for electricity, not weapons, and that its nuclear programme will remain under IAEA monitoring. Iran’s restrictions on UN inspections and history of concealing enrichment work has fanned suspicions.

“The situation is dodgy. Iran’s [activity] is permitted [under nuclear treaties], but it sends a message to its neighbours and the whole world: we could build the bomb relatively soon, if we resolve to do so.”

A May 26 ElBaradei report suggested Iran was making major progress developing and running centrifuges that enrich uranium. - Reutes 2008

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