- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s president scoffed at U.S. claims that his country was building a nuclear reactor at a site attacked by Israel seven months ago, according to excerpts of an interview published today.

President Bashar Assad questioned the logic of such allegations and insisted that the site was an unused military facility.

“Is it logical for a nuclear site to be left without protection and not guarded by anti-aircraft guns?” Assad told the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan.

“A nuclear site under the watch of satellites in the middle of Syria in the desert and in an open location?” Assad said.

He reiterated that the site destroyed by the Israelis was “a Syrian military position under construction and not a nuclear reactor.”

The full interview with Assad, to be published Sunday, was conducted Tuesday, the day U.S. intelligence officials said they would show House and Senate members evidence supporting their case that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance before Israel destroyed it.

Assad did not specifically address the allegations that North Korea was aiding Syria.

Top U.S. intelligence officials said in Washington yesterday that the United States became aware North Korea was helping Syria with a nuclear project in 2003. The critical intelligence that cemented that conclusion came last year after dozens of photographs taken from ground level showed the construction both inside and outside the building, said the intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

After the September attack, the U.S. alleged Syria tried to bury evidence of its existence and erected a new building to hide the site. The building is not believed to house a new reactor, the officials said.

A top U.S. official told The Associated Press that the alleged Syrian reactor was within weeks or months of being functional when Israel destroyed it. The facility was mostly completed but still needed significant testing before it could have been declared operational, said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

However, both the U.S. intelligence officials and independent analysts said there was no reprocessing facility at the site — something that would be needed to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel for use in a bomb. That gives little confidence that the facility was meant for weapons development, they said.

Syria’s government has staunchly denied the U.S. allegations. Today, it repeated its stance and accused Washington of misleading Congress about the country’s nuclear activity.

Senior U.S. officials said the U.S. military was not involved in the attack, and the U.S. government, although informed in advance, did not approve it.

Israel has maintained almost total silence since the Sept. 6 airstrike.

The head of the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency angrily criticized Israel for the bombing and chastised the U.S. for withholding information on the site.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, did not criticize North Korea or Syria in his statement.

In Washington, the State Department brushed aside ElBaradei’s complaint and said the IAEA should begin investigating the matter.

Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, Austria and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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