February 24, 2010 / 9:44 PM / 10 years ago

Syria turns down U.N. nuclear watchdog inspection

VIENNA, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Syria has turned down a planned visit to a research reactor in Damascus by U.N. nuclear inspectors trying to shed light on possible covert atomic activity in the country, diplomats said on Wednesday.

Syria told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a letter that the visit could not take place due to preparations for the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors meeting, which starts on Monday.

The letter was dated Feb. 18, the same day as the IAEA issued its latest report on Syria, but reached the agency on Tuesday, a diplomat close to the IAEA said. This did not give the agency enough warning as it had planned the inspection also for Tuesday.

Syria, an ally of Iran which is under IAEA investigation over nuclear proliferation suspicions, has denied ever having an atom bomb programme.

The IAEA report, presented by new IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, said Syria had refused to hold a meeting in Damascus last month to provide clarification on uranium traces found at a Syrian desert complex which Israeli bombing reduced to ruins in 2007.

The IAEA report said the particles point to possible covert nuclear activity and that the IAEA wanted to visit the Damascus research reactor to take more test samples.

The report was the first time the IAEA lent public support to Western suspicions that the complex targeted by Israel was a nascent nuclear reactor. Washington has said it was a North Korean design geared to making weapons-grade plutonium.

The agency is investigating whether there could be a link between the bombed site and the reactor in Damascus. It had wanted to examine “relevant source documents related to the experiments” at the reactor on its visit this week.

IAEA officials told diplomats from member states on Wednesday that countries could suggest alternative dates for inspection visits if there were scheduling problems and that they were working with Syria to find a solution, diplomats said. (Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Mark Heinrich/David Stamp)

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