PARIS — The U.N. nuclear agency on Thursday said for the first time that a target destroyed by Israeli warplanes in the Syrian desert in 2007 was a covertly built nuclear reactor, countering assertions by Syria that it had no atomic secrets to hide.
Previous reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency have suggested that the structure hit could have been a nuclear reactor. Thursday's comments by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano were the first time the agency has said so unequivocally.
By aligning the IAEA with the United States, which first asserted three years ago that the bombed target was a nuclear reactor, the comments will increase pressure on Syria to stop stonewalling agency requests for more information on its nuclear activities.
Amano spoke during a news conference meant to focus on the Fukushima nuclear disaster after a visit to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to discuss clean-up efforts at Japan's tsunami-ravaged nuclear plant.
"The facility that was ... destroyed by Israel was a nuclear reactor under construction," he asked in response to a question from The Associated Press, repeating to the AP afterward: "It was a reactor under construction."
Previous IAEA language has been more circumspect. In a February report, Amano had said only that features of the bombed structure were "similar to what may be found at nuclear reactor sites."
Israel has never publicly commented on the strike or even acknowledged carrying it out. The U.S. has shared intelligence with the agency that identifies the structure as a nearly completed nuclear reactor that, if finished, would have been able to produce plutonium for the fissile core of nuclear warheads.
In 2008, the Bush administration released images of the site that had been taken prior to the Sept. 6, 2007 strike. The New York Times reported at the time that the undated photos, taken inside the reactor, showed the rods responsible for controlling heat inside a nuclear reactor. The report said the engineering was similar to that of a North Korean site, and that one of the images showed the manager of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant at the location with Syria's top nuclear official.
Syria's nuclear ambitions
Syria denies allegations of any covert nuclear activity or interest in developing nuclear arms. Its refusal to allow IAEA inspectors new access to the bombed Al Kibar desert site past a visit three years ago has heightened suspicions that it had something to hide, along with its decision to level the destroyed structure and later build over it.
Drawing on the 2008 visit by its inspectors, the IAEA determined that the destroyed building's size and structure fit specifications that a reactor would have had. The site also contained graphite and natural uranium particles that could be linked to nuclear activities.
A reporter with Germany's Der Spiegel asked Amano about Syria's nuclear ambitions in an interview last month, noting that the September 2007 strike "destroyed a complex of buildings where plutonium was presumably being produced."
Amano told the publication that Syria "isn't letting our inspectors into the country to examine this location in detail" and said he "was critical of [President Bashar Assad's] country's cooperation" in correspondence with officials there last year.
The IAEA is also trying to probe several other sites for possible undeclared nuclear activities linked to the bombed target but Damascus has been uncooperative on most counts, saying that most of the sites are restricted because of their military nature.
"And then we have a second problem with Syria," Amano said in the Der Spiegel interview. "The research reactor in Damascus is under IAEA supervision, and we conduct routine inspections there. We have now found traces of uranium from a source unknown to us, which is something we also want to know more about."
Amano said the explanations given by Syria aren't sufficient, and that "even if it's only a matter of a few grams, we still want to know where they came from and why they are there."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.