DAMASCUS Russia may help build a nuclear power plant in Syria, Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko told Reuters on Tuesday as the Kremlin moved to strengthen ties with a Soviet-era ally in the Middle East.
On the first state visit to Syria by a Kremlin chief since the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev played up prospects for nuclear power cooperation and said Washington should work harder for peace in the Middle East.
"Cooperation on atomic energy could get a second wind," Medvedev said at a news conference with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after their talks.
Assad said he and Medvedev "talked about oil and gas cooperation, as well as constructing conventional or nuclear powered electricity stations."
Asked whether Russia would build an atomic power plant in Syria, Shmatko told Reuters: "We are studying this question."
Syria is under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency for a suspected nuclear site that Israeli warplanes destroyed in 2007. Syria said the site was a conventional military complex.
The nation has been plagued for years with huge electricity shortages, with power generation falling one-third short of demand and the population expanding at 2.5 percent a year.
Israel has opposed Russian arms sales to Syria in the last several years, and nuclear energy cooperation between Damascus and Moscow may anger the Jewish state.
Shmatko said that cooperation with Russia on a possible nuclear plant would require Damascus to abide by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
MORE ATOMIC PLANTS IN IRAN?
He also suggested Russia might build more nuclear power reactors in Iran beyond the one it plans to switch on this year near the city of Bushehr despite likely U.S. disapproval.
"We are in favour of continuing cooperation with Iran in the energy sphere to the full extent, including in building light-water reactors," Shmatko told journalists.
Russia says all nations have the right to peaceful nuclear power programmes and is aggressively seeking contracts abroad to build nuclear power plants.
But Medvedev, who has indicated Russia could support new U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, called for "constructive cooperation with the international community on Iran's part."
The United States and some European countries believe Iran's nuclear programme is a front for an effort to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies it.
Moscow backed Syria through the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Kremlin is seeking to reinvigorate ties in the Middle East nations. It forgave most of Syria's multi-billion dollar debt.
Russia has also improved ties with Israel and tried to increase its clout to advance the Middle East peace process.
Medvedev repeated Russia's proposal for a Middle East peace conference in Moscow, but he suggested the United States would have to do more if peace efforts are to make headway.
"I agree with my colleague that the American side could take a more active position," Medvedev said at the news conference with Assad.
He said shuttle diplomacy and indirect talks could be helpful.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Charles Dick)