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Thu 26 Jun 2008 10:01 AM

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Syrian nuclear probe off to 'good start'

UN nuclear watchdog probes alleged covert nuclear reactor in Syrian desert, work to continue.

The UN nuclear watchdog's probe into an alleged covert nuclear facility in the Syrian desert has gotten off to "a good start", a top official said on Wednesday.

"It was a good start, but there's still work that remains to be done," Olli Heinonen, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters on returning from a three-day trip to Syria.

"For this trip we did what we agreed to. We achieved what we wanted on this first trip. We took samples which we wanted to take. Now it's time to analyse them," Heinonen said after getting off a flight from Damascus to Vienna.

Asked whether he expected to return to Syria in the near future for follow-up investigations, the IAEA's number two said it was too early to say.

"The work will continue. We'll see in days and weeks to come what happens next," he said.

Heinonen and two other inspectors had flown to Syria Sunday to investigate allegations that a mysterious site bombed by Israel last year had been a covert nuclear reactor nearing completion.

Observers expect the trip to serve as merely the start of a long investigation, similar to the IAEA's five-year probe into Iran's disputed nuclear activities.

Diplomats told AFP that the IAEA experts visited and inspected the site, at Al-Kibar in a remote desert area of northeastern Syria on the Euphrates River.

Washington claims Al-Kibar, razed to the ground by Israeli planes in September, was a nuclear facility built with North Korean help and close to becoming operational. It has provided intelligence and photographic evidence to support its claims.

Syria has denied the allegations as "ridiculous," saying the edifice was simply a disused military building.

The problem is Damascus has wiped clean the site, making the IAEA inspection more difficult, adding to suspicions within elements of the international community about the exact nature of the site.

Heinonen said he was generally satisfied with the degree of cooperation shown by the Syrian authorities so far.

Diplomats close to the IAEA have said that the nuclear watchdog is also interested in two or three other sites, allegedly used to store the debris of the destroyed building.

But Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had said in the run-up to the trip that "talking about other sites is not within the purview of the agreement" with the nuclear watchdog.

Syria itself has refused to make any official comment on the visit, with no acknowledgement in the state-owned media that the inspectors were even in the country.

President Assad has accused the US of fabricating evidence as part of a campaign to ratchet pressure on Damascus, which Washington accuses of supporting terrorism along with its key regional ally, Iran.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel, in its latest edition, said Damascus and Pyongyang had been trying to help Iran to develop its controversial nuclear programme through the construction of Al-Kibar.

Quoting German secret service reports, the magazine said Al-Kibar was to have been used as a temporary site for Iran to develop a nuclear bomb until it was able to do so on its own territory.

Meanwhile, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said that the IAEA has "no evidence that Syria has the human resources that would allow it to carry out a large nuclear programme".