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Nuclear Ring May Have Aided Syria

U.S. data signal the presence of centrifuges. Atomic agency wants to know if Damascus was Pakistani expert's client.

June 25, 2004|Douglas Frantz | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, Turkey — International investigators are examining whether Syria acquired nuclear technology and expertise through the black market network operated by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, according to a U.S. official and Western diplomats.

Intelligence reports indicate that Khan and some associates visited Syria in the late 1990s and later held clandestine meetings with Syrian nuclear officials in Iran, the diplomats said.

Concerns were heightened after an experimental U.S. electronic eavesdropping device recently picked up signals indicating that Syria was operating centrifuges, which enrich uranium for possible use in nuclear weapons.

Khan, who helped Pakistan develop its nuclear arsenal, has admitted selling advanced centrifuge technology and expertise to Iran, Libya and North Korea over nearly two decades. The extent of his illicit operations remains unknown, but diplomats said that if Syria did have centrifuges they would undoubtedly have come from Khan's network.

Inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, are investigating whether sales were made to other countries as they try to build an accurate picture of what officials consider the most serious nuclear proliferation network in history.

A senior European diplomat familiar with the IAEA inquiry said Syria was on the list of suspected customers, but he said the agency had not found evidence that Khan visited Syria or sold technology to it.

The IAEA declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said, "We are unable to comment on any of these questions, because they are all of an intelligence nature." The Syrian representative to the IAEA in Vienna did not respond to written questions submitted Tuesday. In the past, Syrian officials have dismissed accusations that the country is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Other Western diplomats and some U.S. officials cautioned that the information linking Syria to Khan's network was not conclusive. Even if Khan had contact with Syria, they said, there was no evidence that Damascus bought centrifuges or other technology from him.

Since admitting his dealings with some countries this year, Khan has been cooperating with Pakistani authorities, who are sharing some information with the IAEA and the United States.

Khan did not deny contacts with other governments, a senior U.S. official said, but the Pakistani scientist said sales were made only to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Khan's network involved middlemen and suppliers in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The network offered advanced centrifuge machines, components and designs as well as training for operating the machines. Libya also acquired blueprints for a nuclear bomb.

The ring was exposed this year, after Libya turned over Pakistani-supplied centrifuge components and related documents as part of an agreement brokered by the U.S. and Britain to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Even before the scope of Khan's operations became public, the CIA raised alarms about Syria's alleged interest in nuclear weapons and hinted that the nation might be trying to buy technology on the black market.

"Broader access to foreign expertise provides opportunities to expand its indigenous capabilities and we are looking at Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern," the agency said in a report submitted to Congress in mid-2003.

Syria maintains one of the region's largest arsenals of ballistic missiles, developed in cooperation with North Korea and other countries. Analysts also believe that Syria possesses chemical and biological weapons.

The information about its possible nuclear ambitions is more vague. The Western diplomats who described the links between Syria and Khan's network said the Pakistani scientist gave several lectures on nuclear materials in late 1997 and early 1998 in Damascus. Beginning in 2001, they said, Khan's meetings with the Syrians were held in Iran because Syria was concerned that its contacts with the Pakistani scientist would be exposed. They said three scientists from Khan's research laboratory in Pakistan accompanied him to Iran.

The diplomats said the meetings were part of a program intended to help Syria develop nuclear weapons.

The diplomats spoke on condition that neither they nor their countries be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information and the means used to gather it.

Centrifuges spin at enormous speeds to transform uranium gas into enriched uranium for use in reactors or bombs. Thousands of machines are necessary to produce large amounts of enriched uranium, but even a small number would give off a distinct signal, experts said.

The senior U.S. official, who also insisted on anonymity, said an experimental electronic monitor had picked up the distinctive pattern of centrifuges operating in Syria in recent months. The official did not provide any details and said the U.S. only suspects that the technology came from Khan's network.

Reuters news agency reported in early May that the U.S. had information that Syria was operating centrifuges. But the report said the Bush administration was divided over the accuracy of the information.

Some administration officials have pushed for tough action against Syria because of its alleged ties to extremists and likely pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Other officials have argued for a softer course because Damascus has cooperated on terrorism issues.

Under pressure from Congress, President Bush applied economic sanctions on Syria on May 11 because of what he said was its support of terrorism and interference in U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.

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