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Sat 22 Nov 2008 11:34 AM

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Syria denies nuclear programme

Country says building bombed by Israel last year not covert nuclear reactor as US turns up pressure.

Syria said Friday a building bombed by Israeli planes last year was not a covert nuclear reactor, as Washington stuck to its allegations which it said was borne in a findings by the UN nuclear watchdog.

"We are talking about military bases, we are talking about military activities," Ibrahim Othman, the head of Syria's Atomic Energy Commission, told reporters after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors briefed members about their first visit to the site in June.

Earlier on Friday, US envoy to the IAEA Gregory Schulte had said the initial findings of the inspectors' visit had served to harden the suspicions against Syria.

A four-page report circulated to IAEA board members on Wednesday "reinforces the assessment of my government that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor in its eastern desert and thereby violating its IAEA safeguards obligations," Schulte said.

"The report sharply contradicts a number of Syria's claims and catalogues Syria's repeated refusal to answer IAEA questions."

The restricted report, a copy of which was obtained by newswire AFP, said that "while it cannot be excluded that the building in question was intended for non-nuclear use, the features of the building... along with the connectivity of the site to adequate pumping capacity of cooling water are similar to what may be found in connection with a reactor site".

Furthermore, traces of uranium had been found at the site which was razed to the ground by Israeli planes on Sept. 6, 2007.

"No such nuclear material had so far been declared in Syria's inventory... In principle, that sort of nuclear material should not exist there. It's not usual to find man-made uranium in sand," a senior UN official said.

Othman insisted that since the site was a military one, the IAEA had no right to inspect it.

"No other country would allow any person to visit a restricted military site, just because he would like to see it," Othman said.

It was up to Syria's military authorities to decide whether to allow IAEA inspectors into the site.

"I'm just pointing that this is military... and we are in a war, we're still in a war in the Middle East," he said.

Othman said the evidence was not sufficient to warrant an investigation.

"Collecting three particles from the desert doesn't mean there was a reactor there," he said. "In our opinion this file should be closed."

When asked about the IAEA's findings that the building displayed some of the characteristics associated with a nuclear reactor, Othman replied: "If every square building, every rectangular building would be a reactor... then there are a lot of reactors in the world."

Syria "will continue cooperation with the agency, there's no doubt", he said, adding: "We will continue cooperation, we are member of the international community and we are a member of the IAEA."

But it will not sign the so-called Additional Protocol, which gives the IAEA greater inspection rights, Othman said.

"I remind you that the Middle East is different from Asia, from Latin America and different from Europe," he said.

"In the Middle East, we have a war. We have countries, sorry, one country which possesses nuclear weapons. How can you want us to sign the Additional Protocol and they're not even joining the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)," Othman retorted.