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Sun 22 Jun 2008 07:51 PM

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UN atomic experts touch down in Syria

IAEA team to inspect mysterious site bombed by Israel amid allegations it was nuclear facility.

Senior UN atomic experts are set to begin a three-day visit to Syria on Sunday to inspect a mysterious site bombed by Israel last year amid US allegations that it was a nuclear facility.

The team led by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy chief Olli Heinonen left Vienna Sunday morning but there was no immediate indication in Damascus about their arrival as Syria kept the visit under tight wraps.

"We are now travelling to Damascus, we will meet tonight our counterparts and then we start to gather facts," Heinonen told journalists at Vienna airport before boarding a place to Syria.

"What will be waiting there, we will see when we get there," he added.

The team is due to visit Al-Kibar site in a remote desert area of northeastern Syria on the Euphrates River during its three-day trip.

The United States claims, which it says are based on intelligence and photographic evidence, that the Al-Kibar site attacked by Israel in September was a nuclear facility built with North Korean help and close to becoming operational.

But Syria has denied the allegations and said Al-Kibar was a disused military building, although Damascus has fed suspicion by wiping clean the site in a move certain to make the IAEA inspection more difficult.

"We will start to establish the facts this evening," Heinonen said.

"We have the first meeting this afternoon, then it goes from there on," he added.

Heinonen said he would return to IAEA headquarters in the Austrian capital on Wednesday evening.

The team will submit its findings to the watchdog's next regular board meeting in September.

Damascus has welcomed the inspection but insists that it will be limited to Al-Kibar site. US news reports and diplomats close to the IAEA have said that the nuclear watchdog was also interested in two or three other facilities.

"Syria invited the IAEA and will cooperate with it," President Bashar Al-Assad has said, but he insisted that "talking about other sites is not within the purview of the agreement" with the nuclear watchdog.

Al-Assad also charged that the US evidence was "fabricated 100 percent" as part of a campaign to ratchet pressure on Damascus, which Washington accuses of supporting terrorism along with its key regional ally Tehran.

Al-Kibar "is a military facility... it is not nuclear", Al-Assad said.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei stressed in an interview with an Arab news channel ahead of the visit that there was no evidence of Syrian nuclear foul-play.

"We have no evidence that Syria has the human resources that would allow it to carry out a large nuclear programme. We do not see Syria having nuclear fuel," he told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television.

Washington levelled its accusations against Syria in April, seven months after the Israeli attack.

The timing and the cloak of secrecy Israel kept for days after the attack have added to the lingering mystery about Al-Kibar, while Syria has refused to define the facility's military use.

The United States maintains its allegations and along with some European allies has urged Syria to give the inspectors unfettered cooperation.

"We expect the Syrians to provide the IAEA with all the access it requests," an EU diplomat told newswire AFP in Vienna earlier this month.

Syria, a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which Israel refuses to sign, has "limited nuclear resources and capabilities" focusing primarily on civilian research, according to the authoritative Nuclear Threat Initiative website.

Analysts attribute concern about Syria's nuclear intentions to its close ties with Iran and North Korea - both of which are under IAEA scrutiny over their nuclear programmes.