IAEA inspector hopes Syria trip is start to probe

VIENNA, Austria – U.N. nuclear sleuths probing allegations that Syria is hiding secret atomic activities expressed hope Sunday that a trip to Damascus will be the start of a thorough investigation into the accusations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors face a daunting task. Syrian officials are expected to place strict limits on where they will be able to go and what they will be able to see on their three-day visit.

Still, IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen spoke optimistically of the mission’s chances before boarding the flight to Damascus.

“I am sure I will be able to return,” he told reporters, saying he and his two-man trip hoped to start to “establish the facts this evening.”

Despite the low-key nature of the visit, the stakes are high.

Damascus denies working on a secret nuclear program. But Washington hopes that the U.N agency team will come back with evidence to support U.S. intelligence that the structure hit by Israel in September was a nearly completed plutonium-producing reactor.

If so, the trip could mark the start of a massive atomic agency investigation similar to the probe Iran has been subjected to over the past five years. What’s more, the probe could draw in countries like North Korea, which Washington says helped Damascus and Iran. Media reports have also linked Iran to Syria’s nuclear strivings.

Syria agreed to allow the nuclear inspectors to visit the bombed Al Kibar site in early June after months of delay. But it has already said that three other locations suspected of possibly harboring other secret nuclear activities are off limits.

The nuclear agency has few formal inspection rights in Syria, which has only a rudimentary declared nuclear program revolving around research and the production of isotopes for medical and agricultural uses.

Before the trip, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei urged Syria to show “transparency,” a call echoed by the U.S.

“Syria was caught withholding information from the IAEA,” Gregory L. Schulte, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, told The Associated Press. “Now Syria must disclose the truth about Al Kibar and allow IAEA’s inspectors to verify that there are no other undisclosed activities.”

Diplomats accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency told the AP that up to a few days ahead of the trip it was still not clear whether the agency team would be able to bring ground-penetrating radar needed to probe below the concrete fundament of the new building the Syrians erected on the site of the bombed facility.

How much freedom of movement they would be granted once at the site also was unclear, said the diplomats who were briefed ahead of the mission but demanded anonymity because their information was confidential.

The inspectors hoped, for instance, to examine the remnants of the water pipes leading to the site and a nearby pumping plant in their attempts to establish whether they matched the specifics of the North Korean reactor prototype U.S. intelligence asserts was being built, said the diplomats. They also wanted to tour sites where the debris from the bombing — and an apparent subsequent controlled explosion by the Syrians to obliterate the remains — was stored, they said.

One of the diplomats said the team also would ask for information related to allegations of secret Syrian nuclear procurements, either from North Korea or the nuclear black market headed by renegade Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.

But the agency has little leverage, and its success will depend on what they are allowed to see and do.

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~ by richart123 on June 22, 2008.

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