IAEA chief hits out at US, Israel over Syrian reactor claims

The UN atomic watchdog hit out on Friday at the United States for withholding intelligence that Syria had been building a secret nuclear reactor with North Korea’s help.

The International Atomic Energy Agency also criticized Israel for acting on the allegations and bombing the purported reactor in a raid last September without giving IAEA inspectors an opportunity to investigate.

The agency insisted it was taking seriously the allegations that were passed on by the United States on Thursday.

“(We) will treat this information with the seriousness it deserves and will investigate the veracity of the information,” it said in a statement.

“Syria has an obligation under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility.”

Nevertheless, the watchdog was critical of both the US and Israel for their handling of the matter.

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei “deplores the fact” that the information was not immediately passed on the Vienna-based watchdog in accordance with the guidelines of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),” the statement said.

“Under the NPT, the agency has a responsibility to verify any proliferation allegations in a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT,” the statement said.

“In light of the above, the Director General views the unilateral military action by Israel as undermining the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime,” it added.

On Thursday, the US accused Syria of building a secret nuclear reactor with North Korea’s help, charging that the facility had a military purpose until Israel destroyed it in a September raid.

Damascus immediately rejected the allegations as “ridiculous”. “The construction of this reactor was a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the region and the world. The Syrian regime must come clean before the world,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

In a two-page statement, released after top US national security officials’ briefed US lawmakers on the issue on Thursday, Perino said: “We have good reason to believe that reactor … was not intended for peaceful purposes.”

A senior US intelligence official said the reactor was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on September 6, 2007 as it was nearing completion, although it had not been loaded with uranium fuel.

“Israel felt that this reactor posed such an existential threat that a different approach was required,” the official said.

In a briefing for reporters, senior officials said Israel and the United States had discussed what steps to take, but Israel acted on its own with no green light from Washington.

“None was asked. None was given,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A senior intelligence official said that before it was destroyed the reactor was ready to go into operation “in weeks and possibly months.”

US intelligence examined but rejected the possibility that plutonium produced by the Syrian reactor was intended for North Korea.

“Our judgment, based on the overwhelming body of evidence, was this was in Syria for Syria,” a senior intelligence official said.

Among the evidence displayed were photographs taken inside the reactor showing construction of the shield for the reactor core, and control rods and refuelling ports on top of the reactor.

The reactor and the building that housed it were similar in design to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, which produces plutonium, the officials said.

The Syrian embassy charged that the United States “may have helped execute” the Israeli air strike and pointedly tied the charges to the widely discredited weapons-of-mass-destruction case for invading Iraq.

“The Syrian government hopes that the international community and the American public, particularly, will be more cautious and aware this time around in facing such unfounded allegations,” it said.

The revelations could upset six-country talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, although chief US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill said the intelligence suggested there was no “ongoing cooperation” between Pyongyang and Syria.