- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

— DAMASCUS, Syria | Syria said Saturday it would bar United Nations’ nuclear investigators from revisiting a site bombed by Israeli jets on suspicion it was a secretly built atomic reactor.

The move dealt a blow to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) efforts to follow up on intelligence indicating Syria was hiding a nuclear program that could be used to make weapons.

Syria denies it has hidden nuclear facilities.

Justifying its decision, a Foreign Ministry official told reporters Syria’s agreement with the U.N. nuclear watchdog - which already inspected the site in June - allowed only one visit. The official, who was not authorized to speak to the media, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Syrian statement appeared to be prompted by comments made by diplomats accredited to the Vienna, Austria-based IAEA, who told the Associated Press earlier Saturday that Syria late last month turned down a request from the agency for a follow-up trip.

A return to the bombed facility, which the U.S. says was a nearly completed plutonium-producing reactor, would have been on the IAEA agenda. Plutonium can be used as the fissile core of warheads.

But a second trip also was meant to focus on the broader issue of North Korean involvement in building what is thought to be a Syrian program.

IAEA officials would also have pressed for permission to visit three other sites linked to the purported reactor destroyed by the Israelis - although Syria has already said those locations are off limits because they are in restricted military areas.

The diplomats said the agency probe is based on intelligence provided to the IAEA by the U.S., Israel and a third country they declined to identify.

In Vienna, a senior diplomat told the AP “the Syrians said that a visit at this time was inopportune.” He and two others agreeing to discuss the issue demanded anonymity because their information was confidential.

That appeared to leave open the possibility of a later inspection tour. But one of the other diplomats said members of the Syrian mission to the IAEA were spreading the word among other missions that additional trips beyond the one in June were unlikely.

Syria fears the IAEA probe could lead to a massive investigation similar to the probe its ally Iran has been subjected to for more than five years - and to related fallout. Iran is under three sets of U.N. sanctions because of its refusal to heed U.N. Security Council demands to curb its nuclear activities.

The diplomats also said Washington had circulated a note among members of the IAEA board opposing a Syrian push for a seat on the 35-nation board. The board normally works by consensus and if Damascus gained a seat it would likely use it to try and hinder further investigation into its nuclear activities.

“Syria’s election to the board while under investigation for secretly … building an undeclared nuclear reactor not suited for peaceful purposes would make a mockery” of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, said the note, as read to the AP.

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