By Mark Heinrich
VIENNA (Reuters) – A U.N. nuclear watchdog inquiry into allegations of a secret nuclear reactor in Syria is off to â€œa good startâ€ and inspectors were able to take extensive test samples at the site, their team chief said on Wednesday.
But Olli Heinonen, speaking to reporters on his return to Vienna after four days in Syria, said it was â€œtoo earlyâ€ to draw conclusions about the nature of the site, bombed by Israel last September, and follow-up sleuthing could take quite awhile.
Syria denies hiding anything from U.N. inspectors, saying Israel destroyed an ordinary military building and accusing Washington of spreading disinformation.
Heinonen said his team gathered environmental samples of â€œquite a lot of thingsâ€ in search of traces of material that might point to what Washington said was a nascent, plutonium-making reactor before it was flattened.
â€œTo a great extent, we achieved what we wanted … and agreed to do … on this first trip,â€ he said, adding that he was generally satisfied with Syrian cooperation so far.
â€œItâ€™s been a good start, a good start,â€ said Heinonen, the International Atomic Energy Agencyâ€™s deputy director-general in charge of non-proliferation inspections worldwide.
Pressed on whether his three-man sleuth team was able to see what it wanted to check and speak to relevant Syrian officials despite diplomatic reports its room for inquiry would be severely restricted, he said: â€œYes, quite a lot. But there is still work that remains to be done. It will take awhile.
â€œWe took samples that we needed to take and now itâ€™s time to analyze them and look over the information we got from Syria. We will continue our discussions with Syrian counterparts. Nothing more, nothing less than that,â€ Heinonen said.
The IAEA dispatched Heinonenâ€™s team after receiving U.S. photos of the al-Kibar site that prompted the U.N. watchdog to put Syria on its nuclear proliferation watch list in April.
Heinonen said no follow-up visit was yet slated. But diplomats close to the IAEA had said it would have to do further detective work in Syria to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Some Analysts Suspect Syrian Cover-up
U.S. nuclear analysts say satellite images show the Syrians had removed debris and constructed a new building at the site destroyed by Israel in what they see as a possible cover-up.
The initial scope of the inquiry was limited by what diplomats said was Syriaâ€™s refusal to let the inspectors search three other sites for any evidence of a source of fuel for the reactor, or relevant processing equipment.
Syria denied access on national security grounds, asserting such sites were conventional military bases only and off-limits.
Asked about other sites of IAEA interest, Heinonen said: â€œThat (issue) will be something to deal with later.â€
He said he did not know how long it would take to get results from the environmental samples.
But the IAEAâ€™s inspectorate is expected to issue a detailed report on findings in Syria to the agencyâ€™s 35-nation Board of Governors before its next meeting in September.
The IAEA has criticized Washington for waiting until long after the Israeli raid to brief the U.N. nuclear watchdog about its suspicions that Syria, with North Korean help, had almost completed a reactor that could have yielded plutonium for bombs.
IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said ahead of the inspectorsâ€™ trip that he doubted they would find any useful evidence so long after the siteâ€™s destruction.
ElBaradei also said there was no evidence that Syria, whose only declared nuclear facility is an ageing research reactor under IAEA monitoring, had the skills or fuel to run a major nuclear complex. Washington disputes this.
But ElBaradei said he took the U.S. accusations very seriously and demanded â€œabsolute transparencyâ€ from Damascus.
Damascus has denied concealing anything from the IAEA in possible violation of its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.
Syrian officials and state-dominated media maintained silence about the IAEA mission throughout.
Syria, an ally of Iran whose secretive nuclear program has been under IAEA investigation since 2003, has accused the United States of doctoring evidence in collusion with Israel, believed to be the Middle Eastâ€™s only nuclear-armed power.
(Editing by Diana Abdallah)