Suspected Location of Syria's Reactor Cleared
Friday, October 26, 2007
Syria has cleared away all traces of a large building that experts say was bombed by Israeli jets last month because it was suspected of housing a partially finished nuclear reactor, according to a new satellite image that shows only freshly groomed dirt at the site.
The tall, box-like building visible in aerial photographs before the Sept. 6 bombing raid has been dismantled down to the last brick, the image taken Wednesday by a commercial satellite service shows.
Nuclear weapons experts who studied the photo sequence said the starkly different images indicate that Syria must have moved quickly to hide what remained after the site was bombed.
"They are clearly trying to hide the evidence," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit nuclear research group that was the first to publicly identify the facility as the apparent target of the Israeli raid. "It is a trick that has been tried in the past, and it hasn't worked."
The original building, slightly larger than a baseball diamond, was located in Syria's eastern desert near the village of At Tibnah, about 90 miles from the Iraqi border and a few hundred yards from the Euphrates River. Some U.S. officials and nuclear experts said the building closely resembled structures associated with a North Korean reactor capable of producing enough nuclear material for one bomb per year.
Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji al-Otri denied yesterday that Syria has been working with the North Koreans to develop either a nuclear reactor or missile technology. "The rumors have been deliberately fabricated by Israel to justify its recent act of aggression against Syria," Otri told reporters in Damascus. Syria previously acknowledged that Israel had bombed what it called a military target inside its borders but led reporters to a different location.
The Israeli government and the White House have maintained a policy of official secrecy regarding the nature and location of the facility struck by the Israeli jets.
Otri's comments came shortly after the conclusion of high-level talks between senior officials of the ruling Baath Party and a delegation from North Korea. The talks were the latest in a series of such meetings in both Damascus and Pyongyang. Syria's SANA News Agency said the two sides discussed "mutual cooperation . . . and ways of developing them in the economic, commercial and social fields." The North Koreans also said their country "stands by Syria" as it faces new challenges.
In addition to razing the main building, workers at the Syrian site appeared in the photo to be in the process of tearing down a small adjunct building. The only structure still visible is a small building on the banks of the Euphrates, about 800 yards from the main site. It could be a pumping station of the type used to supply water to nuclear reactors.
Albright expressed surprise at the speed with which the main structure had been dismantled and cleared away. "It's quicker than you'd expect, given that the IAEA would like to visit the site," he said.
In the weeks since news of the Israeli raid emerged, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has repeatedly asked Syria about its activities. The country was previously known to have only one small research reactor. Under IAEA guidelines, construction of any part of a new nuclear reactor without formal notice would violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Officials of the watchdog agency have declined to comment on the new photos. The IAEA has acquired its own commercial-satellite photographs of the Syrian site but has not disclosed its conclusions. The agency in the past has urged caution in interpreting aerial photos, noting that it might not be possible to reach firm conclusions based on such evidence.
Some U.S. officials familiar with the Israeli raid say North Korea may have assisted Syria with the project, although the extent of North Korea's involvement remains unclear. North Korea has denied playing a role.
Allegations that North Korea may have assisted the Syrians have increased pressure on the Bush administration, which supports disarmament talks aimed at eliminating North Korea's nuclear threat. During testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill came under fire over U.S. secrecy on the Israeli strike and Washington's dealings with North Korea.
"Our concerns about proliferation are profound and . . . we cannot reach an agreement when proliferation issues are ignored," Hill said, in the first public hint of concern within the administration about North Korea's recent activities.