Thu, Feb 26, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Syrian missile facility uncovered

GRAPHITE A report by the UN nuclear watchdog alleged that Syria had attempted to secretly put its hands on ‘dual use’ material that could be part of a nuclear program


Syria has revealed that it has built a missile facility over the ruins of what the US says was a nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel warplanes, diplomats said.

Citing comments by Syrian nuclear chief Ibrahim Othman at a closed meeting on Tuesday, the diplomats said the new structure at the Al Kibar site appeared to be a missile control center or actual launching pad.

The two — both from Western delegations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)— demanded anonymity for divulging details about what Othman told IAEA’s 35-nation board.

Israel bombed the site in September 2007. While the Jewish state has not commented on the strike, Washington subsequently presented intelligence purporting to show that the target in a remote area of the Syrian desert was a nearly finished nuclear reactor built with North Korean help that would have been able to produce plutonium once completed.

Syria has denied secret nuclear activities but has blocked IAEA inspectors from visits beyond an initial inspection to the Al Kibar site.

Environmental samples from that trip have revealed traces of man-made uranium and graphite. But UN officials said it was too early to say whether the graphite — a common element in North Korean prototype reactors — had any nuclear applications.

Syria had previously said only that the site was military in nature and that it was being rebuilt. But the diplomats said comments by Othman suggested that the facility now in place of the bombed target was either a missile launching command center or a launching pad.

They quoted Othman as saying that, when IAEA Deputy Director Olli Heinonen visited the site in June, Heinonen was asked whether the Syrians should “put a missile in position” — apparently to demonstrate its present use — with the IAEA official saying no.

One of the diplomats said the briefing was told that the finding of 80 uranium particles in the environmental samples was “significant.”

But Othman played down the laboratory results in comments outside the meeting — and denied outright that graphite was found. That denial contradicted comments from UN officials familiar with the Syria probe.

“There is no graphite at all,” he told reporters. As for the uranium traces, “any analysis has errors,” he said. “The smaller the amount the larger the [probability of] error.”

One of the two diplomats also said that inside the briefing Othman announced that Syria would no longer accept evidence of apparent nuclear activity resulting from further findings from the samples taken by the agency.

That — and Damascus’ continued refusal to allow other visits to the Al Kibar site and other ones suspected of secret nuclear activity — could cripple the agency’s investigative efforts.

Expanding on an IAEA report on the Syria probe circulated to board members earlier this week, agency officials told the meeting that Syria had apparently tried to secretly buy “dual use” materials that can — but are not necessarily — part of a nuclear program, the diplomats said.

Among the substances were high-grade graphite — used to control the speed of fission in some reactors — and barium sulfate, a nuclear shielding material. Syria claimed non-nuclear purposes for both substances, the diplomats said.

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