Inspectors: Syria probe 'inconclusive'

But Syrian VP says his country allowed UN nuclear inspections to prove US allegations were false.

Syrian reactor 224 (photo credit: Courtesy ISIS)
Syrian reactor 224
(photo credit: Courtesy ISIS)
Syria's vice president said Wednesday his country allowed UN nuclear inspectors to visit a site in the remote eastern desert allegedly destroyed by IAF jets last year to prove that US allegations of a covert Syrian nuclear program were false. Farouk al-Sharaa said however that the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would not be allowed to probe beyond the Al Kibar site, despite a UN request to visit three other suspect locations. His comments in an interview with the Hizbullah-owned Al Manar TV station were the first from Syria on the four-day visit by the IAEA team, which ended Wednesday. A senior UN atomic inspector told reporters Wednesday upon his return to Vienna, Austria, the site of IAEA headquarters, that his team's initial probe of US allegations was inconclusive and required further checks. Olli Heinonen, a deputy director general of the agency said he was satisfied with what was achieved on his three-day trip but "there is still work that needs to be done" in following up on the claims that Syria was hiding elements of a potential nuclear arms program. He met in the Syrian capital with officials in charge of the nation's nuclear program and senior generals to discuss Syrian claims that the building flattened by the IAF was a non-nuclear military facility. With Syrian authorities imposing a virtual news blackout on his trip, few details of the visit had surfaced beyond the fact that Syrian authorities had allowed the three-man inspecting team to visit the Al Kibar site targeted in September. "They (inspectors) have rights to visit only the concerned site," al-Sharaa said in the interview Wednesday. He said Syria agreed to the inspection "to prove that their (US) allegations are false and untrue." He suggested, however, that even confidence in Syria's innocence may not be enough to head off a prolonged inspection process because of "the experience of other countries." He was apparently referring to the UN agency's protracted probe during former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's rule, which did not turn up any evidence of Iraq having had weapons of mass destruction as the US alleged. Al-Sharaa said Syria wants the Middle East to be a nuclear-free region on condition that Israel also be subjected to monitoring and international inspections. He said Syria would employ certain "political and diplomatic" methods at the UN Security Council and with the IAEA in case the agency insists on a prolonged nuclear probe and visiting more sites. He did not elaborate or say what they were. Damascus strongly denies US allegations that it is involved in any nuclear activities and fears the accusations could be used by Washington to rally international pressure against it. The IAEA visit is billed as a fact-finding mission, but if inspectors uncover evidence of a nascent nuclear program, it could mark the start of a massive investigation similar to the agency's five-year probe into Iran's activities. It could also draw in countries such as North Korea, which Washington claims helped Damascus and Iran. The IAEA has little formal inspection rights in Syria, which has declared only a rudimentary nuclear program using a small 27-kilowatt reactor for research and the production of isotopes for medical and agricultural uses. Heinonen declined to tip his cards on what he and his team had been able to see and do beyond acknowledging that they were able to take environmental samples in the area designed to capture traces of material that were likely spread over a large area by Israeli ordinance. "We achieved what we wanted on this first trip," he said. "We continue our discussions, we took the samples we need to take and now it's time to analyze them and also look at the information we got from Syria." "We will see in the days and weeks what will happen next," he said when asked about the chances of a follow-up visit.