IAEA Syria probe may be inconclusive without help

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VIENNA, Nov 1 (Reuters) A UN watchdog inquiry into a suspected Syrian covert nuclear site bombed by Israel may end inconclusively without more information than satellite pictures that are already available, a diplomat said.

Western analysts say a tall boxy building on the site may have contained a nuclear reactor under construction similar to North Korean design, and find it suspicious that the structure appeared to have been razed after the Sept. 6 air raid.

Syria denies the speculation and says it is hiding nothing from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors.

The IAEA has been studying before-and-after commercial aerial photos of the site and has asked Syria for explanations. But Syria has not replied and the pictures alone are unlikely to yield conclusions, the diplomat told Reuters yesterday.

''IAEA experts are looking back at the evolution of this facility. But with these pictures alone they feel they may be unable to draw conclusions,'' the diplomat, familiar with IAEA affairs but not authorised to speak on the record, told Reuters.

''If the IAEA got credible indications from anyone of nuclear procurement or activity, that would be different. But imagery of a tall building shaped like a square, that's not enough (to tell whether or not the site may have been a nuclear site).'' Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the Vienna-based agency, has urged countries with information pointing to possible secret Syrian nuclear work to give it to IAEA inspectors for checks.

But on Sunday he said that no one had come forward. He also accused Israel of taking a ''bomb first and then ask questions later'' approach and said that could hinder IAEA monitoring for nuclear proliferation threats globally.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the target was just a minor military building under construction.

It first showed up in satellite imagery about five years ago. A Washington nuclear tracking institute has published recent pictures that it says show the site was razed and ploughed over after the raid, suggesting a possible cover-up.

Israel has acknowledged striking a target in Syria, a long time enemy, on Sept 6 but has not described what it was. The Jewish state's key ally the United States has declined comment.

European diplomats in Damascus said the site near the Euphrates River, about 140 km from the Iraqi border, may have been linked to missiles supplied by North Korea, but they played down reports of a nuclear link.

The Vienna diplomat said it was possible the IAEA could ask Syria to let inspectors go to the location to take environmental samples, which could detect undeclared use of nuclear materials.

But the agency hoped for Syrian clarification first.

Since 2003, the IAEA has been investigating Western suspicions of secret attempts by Iran, an ally of Syria, to build atom bombs. Iran says its nuclear energy program is intended solely to provide an alternative source of electricity.

REUTERS PD RAI1024

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