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U.N. nuclear team inspects Syrian site

June 24, 2008|From Reuters

VIENNA — U.N. nuclear inspectors Monday examined a site in Syria that the United States says housed a secretly built nuclear reactor nearing completion when it was bombed by Israel nine months ago, a diplomat said.

Syria denies that it has a covert nuclear weapons program and says the Israelis hit an ordinary military structure being built at Al Kibar, in the northeastern desert.

Neither Syria nor the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency has issued any information about the visit of the inspectors since their arrival Sunday in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

A senior diplomat in Europe familiar with the IAEA said the inspectors had reached the site and examined it.

The source gave no further details, but diplomats said earlier they were expecting to spend the day at Al Kibar.

The team led by Olli Heinonen, head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog's global inspectorate, was also due to hold talks with Syrian officials before returning to Vienna on Wednesday.

Syria's silence on the visit, to which it agreed June 5, indicates how sensitive the issue is for President Bashar Assad.

The IAEA put Syria on its proliferation watch list in April after receiving intelligence photographs from the U.S. said to show a reactor that could have yielded plutonium, a nuclear bomb component.

Washington said Syria had almost completed the plant with North Korean help. North Korea evaded IAEA checks and test-exploded a nuclear device in 2006.

Syrian officials have accused the United States of fabricating evidence in collusion with Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power.

U.S. nuclear analysts say satellite images since the Israeli strike show the bombed site had been razed and a new building erected there.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has condemned the Israeli raid and criticized the U.S. for failing to share its intelligence materials on Syria with his agency much sooner.

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