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Amid reports in the American media that the alleged Israeli raid into Syria 10 days ago targeted a North Korean-Syrian nuclear facility, John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN, told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend that "simple logic" suggested North Korea and Iran could have outsourced nuclear development "to a country that is not under suspicion" - namely Syria. Tellingly, he added: "Why would North Korea protest an Israeli strike on Syria?"
Bolton suggested that Syria, which he said has long sought a range of weapons of mass destruction, might have agreed to provide "facilities for uranium enrichment" on its territory for two allied countries which are being closely watched for nuclear development.
Bolton spoke as American newspapers reported that the alleged IAF raid, over which Israel has maintained official silence, was aimed at a facility in northern Syria close to the Turkish border, and that the strike may have been linked to the recent arrival of a shipment from North Korea, labeled as cement, but believed by Israel to contain nuclear equipment.
According to The Washington Post, Israel had been keeping a watchful eye on the facility, which is officially characterized by the Syrians as an agricultural research center. The offending shipment arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus on September 3, three days before the reported IAF raid.
The IAF strike took place "under such strict operational security that the pilots flying air cover for the attack aircraft did not know details of the mission," The Washington Post said Saturday, quoting a top US expert who it said had interviewed Israeli participants. "The pilots who conducted the attack were briefed only after they were in the air," the paper quoted him as saying.
The Syrian ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, warned at the weekend that Israel would "pay a price" for the raid. Interviewed in Newsweek, Moustapha dismissed as "ridiculous and untrue" the notion of Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation. "There are no nuclear North Korean-Syrian facilities whatsoever in Syria," Moustapha said.
On Friday, Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, told the Associated Press in Rome that North Koreans were in Syria and that Damascus may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment. "There are indicators that they do have something going on there," he said.
Asked why Syria would take the risk of hosting part of a North Korean nuclear program, Bolton spoke of "Iranian compensation" and noted that "Syria is very aggressive in pursuing WMD capability." He said such a partnership would indeed be risky for Syria, but such risks might be considered worthwhile "when you're as aligned as seriously as Syria is with Iran."
"It's a diversion game - to carry on even when you are supposed to have halted, as in the case of North Korea. And I'd be surprised if Syria would do anything with North Korea without Iranian acquiescence," said Bolton.
Bolton noted that North Korea had cooperated in the past with both Syria and Iran, on ballistic missile development. For instance, he said, in the late 1990s, after an international outcry, he said, North Korea halted test launches of such missiles, but Iran continued testing and shared the results.
Bolton said he was also struck by the "hesitant way" in which Damascus had complained to the United Nations Security Council. "They have not pushed as hard as I know they know how to do in New York for condemnation. They have still not explained the nature of the attack. If it had been an attack on a Syrian military facility or civilians, they would have no problem explaining."
Bolton said it was still possible that Israel had been targeting an Iranian arms shipment being transported through Syria to Hizbullah, as some initial reports suggested. But he noted that Hizbullah had already heavily rearmed, and thought it unlikely that Israel would therefore resort to the "serious proposition" of an air strike in Syria to stop another such shipment.
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja'afari, meanwhile, said Saturday that nothing in Syria was bombed by the IAF, and nothing was damaged. Reports of such an attack were "ridiculous and not true," Army Radio reported Ja'afari as saying. Ja'afari added that "Syria does not have North Korean nuclear facilities."
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the US had been gathering evidence, mainly from Israel, over the past six months that North Korea has been cooperating with Syria on a nuclear facility. This evidence - codenamed "Orchard" - was said to include "dramatic satellite imagery that led some US officials to believe that the facility could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons."
In talks in Beijing in March 2003, The Washington Post further reported, "a North Korean official pulled aside his American counterpart and threatened to 'transfer' nuclear material to other countries. President Bush has said that passing North Korean nuclear technology to other parties would cross the line."
In his comments on Friday, the State Department's Semmel said: "We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen.
"So good foreign policy, good national security policy, would suggest that we pay very close attention to that," Semmel went on. "We're watching very closely. Obviously, the Israelis were watching very closely."
Asked if the suppliers could have been North Koreans, Semmel said: "There are North Korean people there. There's no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran."
Asked if the so-called Khan network, which supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, could have been involved, he said he "wouldn't exclude" it.
AP contributed to this report.â€¢