x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Syria was building atomic plant when Israel bombed site

Satellite imagery, procurement, and infrastructure information points to destroyed building at Dair Alzour being 'indeed, a nuclear reactor at an advanced state of construction' says former senior UN nuclear inspector.

VIENNA// Satellite images and other information indicate Syria was building a covert atomic reactor when Israel bombed the site in 2007, a former senior UN nuclear inspector said yesterday.

Olli Heinonen, who stepped down as deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year, made his remarks at a time when some argue that Damascus may soon be referred to the UN Security Council over the issue.

Mr Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, said "satellite imagery, procurement, and infrastructure information tend to point [in the] direction that the destroyed building at Dair Alzour was, indeed, a nuclear reactor at an advanced state of construction".

In an e-mail to Reuters, he said, however, that Syria had not "engaged in any substantial discussion" about Dair Alzour.

Israeli warplanes wrecked the desert site in September 2007 and Syria has allowed IAEA investigators to visit it only once, in June 2008, rejecting repeated requests for further visits.

Western diplomats expect the Vienna-based IAEA to use stronger language in its next quarterly report on Syria which is due later this month, possibly by saying it believes the facility was a reactor under construction.

The United States and its European allies are expected to seize on this finding to push for a decision at the June 6 to 10 meeting of the IAEA's governing board to send the file to the UN Security Council - a move last used against Iran in 2006.

The move would reflect growing frustration in the West over Syria's stonewalling of an IAEA probe into Dair Alzour, which US intelligence reports said was a nascent North Korean-designed reactor intended to make bomb fuel.

Preparations for a possible US-led move by the IAEA's 35-nation governing board coincide with a Syrian crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

Western diplomats in Vienna insist the two issues are separate. "There is a general feeling that there has been a stalemate in the Syrian case for too long and therefore something has to be done," one European ambassador accredited to the IAEA said.

"It is a dramatic step," he said about the possibility that the Syria case would be handed over to the Security Council, which may debate the issue or take other action.

Syria, an ally of Iran, denies ever having a nuclear weapons programme. It has suggested uranium traces uncovered at Dair Alzour after a one-off IAEA visit came with Israeli munitions used in the attack. The agency has dismissed this as unlikely.