UN watchdog asks Syria about "undeclared" atom plant

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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 nuclear 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 Sept. 6 air strike on Syria, a major foe, but has not described the target. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the target was an unused military building.

''The International Atomic Energy Agency has no information about any undeclared nuclear facility in Syria and no information about recent reports,'' spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said in a statement issued from the IAEA's Vienna headquarters.

''The IAEA is in contact with the Syrian authorities to verify the authenticity of these reports,'' she said.

''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.'' A Vienna diplomat close to the IAEA said it had initiated contacts with Damascus shortly after the air raid but the Syrians had provided no clarification yet.

US officials have linked the raid to apparent Israeli suspicions of covert nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Syria. They said the site in question was identified earlier this year in satellite photographs.

SYRIAN DENIES ILLICIT PROGRAMME Syria has belonged to the 144-nation IAEA since 1963 and has one declared, small research reactor subject to UN inspections, which aim to prevent illicit diversions of civilian nuclear energy technology into atomic bombmaking.

Syria has denied hiding any nuclear activity from the IAEA or having anything other than energy goals with nuclear work.

The Vienna diplomat said that if Syria was indeed building a new reactor, it would have been required to inform the agency, and provide design data, as soon as it decided to construct one.

No country had provided satellite or other intelligence about the alleged plant to the IAEA although such help would be crucial to detecting such a site, added the diplomat, who asked not to be named due to the topic's political sensitivity.

''With the (low) level of IAEA funding, inspectors can't go around a country checking every building. The IAEA is not a go-it-alone investigative agency,'' said the diplomat.

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 flattened in 1981.

''A very real question is whether Syria is technically and financially able to build such a reactor. It would be hard to justify an air strike on a facility so early on in construction and, if supplied by North Korea, unlikely ever to be finished,'' US analyst David Albright, alluding to North Korea's nuclear disarmament agreement earlier this year, told Reuters.

''Israel may have wanted to send a signal to Iran. The US wants to scare Iran (off nuclear work) and this air strike might have been a way to do it, and explain some of Israel's secrecy.'' REUTERS RSA PM2150

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