VIENNA, Oct 3 (Reuters) – Syria said on Friday it was cooperating fully with a U.N. inquiry into its nuclear activity but would not go as far as opening up military sites because this would undermine its national security.
Diplomats say the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has asked to examine several Syrian military installations, but the comments from Damascus clearly ruled this out.
The Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog has been probing Syria since May over U.S. intelligence allegations that it almost built a secret, plutonium-producing reactor before Israel destroyed the site in an air strike a year ago.
Syria — an ally of Iran, which is the subject of a much longer-running, and now stalled, IAEA investigation — has denied having a secret nuclear programme.
The IAEA said last week that preliminary findings from test samples taken by inspectors on a visit granted by Damascus to the desert site in June showed no evidence of one. Syria says all that was there was a disused military building.
Western countries accused Syria at the annual meeting of the IAEA’s 145-nation assembly this week of denying the IAEA full access to documentation, officials and sites that they said was needed to get to the bottom of the allegations.
IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei credited Syrian cooperation so far but said he looked for Damascus to show “maximum transparency” and provide all information needed for the agency to draw conclusions.
“We would like to underline that my government is cooperating with the agency in full transparency and will follow suit all along the way,” Ibrahim Othman, Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission director, told the IAEA’s assembly on Friday. “However, this cooperation will not in any way come at the expense of exposing our military sites or causing a threat to our national security,” said Othman.
Diplomats close to the IAEA have said Syria has ignored agency requests to check three military installations believed linked to the alleged reactor site. “We regret statements by some countries calling on us to show more transparency. I would like you here to recall what (ElBaradei) said, namely that Syria has cooperated and complied with implementation of the measures agreed to by the agency.”
Othman also urged the gathering to back Syria’s candidacy for a two-year seat on the IAEA’s 35-nation, policymaking Board of Governors, strongly opposed by Western nations since Damascus is under investigation over proliferation concerns.
He said Syria played a “positive role” during an earlier tenure on the board and had a record of “fruitful cooperation” with the IAEA in peaceful applications of nuclear know-how.
Syria’s only declared nuclear site is an older research reactor.
Syria is competing with U.S. ally Afghanistan for the nomination to a seat on the board reserved for a representative of the Middle East and South Asian (MESA) group in the assembly.
Diplomats said MESA had been unable to come to the usual consensus on one candidate and the assembly therefore was expected to vote on both candidates later on Friday — a rare and highly divisive step in a body that prides itself on consensus.
The winner would be chosen by a simple majority.
Western diplomats said they had a majority for Afghanistan, including all European Union members, Japan, Canada, Australia and some African, Asian and Latin American countries.