UN watchdog asks Syria about atom reactor reports

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VIENNA, Oct 15 (Reuters) The UN nuclear watchdog did not know about any undeclared atomic plant in Syria and has asked Damascus about information that such a site was targeted by an Israeli air strike, a spokeswoman said today.

Citing unidentified US and foreign officials with access to intelligence reports, the New York Times said yesterday the nucldar reactor was partially built and apparently modelled on one in North Korea used for stockpiling atomic bomb fuel.

Israel confirmed earlier this month that it had carried out a September 6 air strike on Syria but has not described the target. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the target was an unused military building.

''The International Atomic Energy Agency is in contact with the Syrian authorities to verify the authenticity of these reports,'' said IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming.

''The IAEA has no information about any undeclared nuclear facility in Syria and no information about recent reports,'' she said in a statement issued from the IAEA's Vienna headquarters.

''We would obviously investigate any relevant information coming our way. The IAEA Secretariat expects any country having information about nuclear-related activities in another country to provide that information to the IAEA.'' US officials have linked the raid to apparent Israeli suspicions of secret nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea. They said the site in question was identified earlier this year in satellite photographs.

The IAEA fosters peaceful use of nuclear energy and its inspectors seek to verify that nuclear technology in member states is not being diverted to atomic bombmaking in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

SYRIAN DENIAL Syria has belonged to the 144-nation IAEA since 1963 and has one declared, small research reactor under agency safeguards. It has denied hiding any nuclear activity from the IAEA or having an atomic bomb programme.

The IAEA has been investigating past nuclear secrecy in Iran, a member state and ally of Syria, since 2003.

Iran has pledged to clarify the scope of its programme by the end of 2007 in an effort to avoid being hit with harsh UN sanctions over its refusal to stop enriching uranium, a process Western powers suspect Iran is channelling into bombmaking. Iran says it only wants an alternative source of electricity.

The New York Times said the targeted Syrian facility appeared to have been much further from completion than an Iraqi reactor the Israeli air force destroyed in 1981 in an attack echoed by the incident last month.

It said US officials were divided over the Syria attack, with some seeing it as premature since the site looked years away from being used to produce spent nuclear fuel that could eventually be used for bomb-grade plutonium.

It remained unclear how far Syria had progressed with the alleged plant before the attack, what role North Korea might have played and whether a case could be made that it was intended to produce electricity.

US and foreign officials refused to be drawn on whether they suspected North Korea of having sold or given the plans to Syria, but some said it was possible a transfer of technology occurred several years ago.

REUTERS SKB HS1942

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