Samples taken from a Syrian site bombed by Israel on suspicion it was a covert nuclear reactor contained traces of uranium combined with other elements that merit further investigation, diplomats said Monday.
The diplomats — who demanded anonymity because their information was confidential — said the uranium was processed and not in raw form, suggesting some kind of nuclear link.
But one of the diplomats said the uranium finding itself was significant only in the context of other traces found in the oil or air samples taken by International Atomic Energy Agency experts during their visit to the site in June.
Syria has a rudimentary declared nuclear program revolving around research and the production of isotopes for medical and agricultural uses, using a small, 27-kilowatt reactor, and the uranium traces might have originated from there and inadvertently been carried to the bombed site. But taken together, the uranium and the other components found on the environmental swipes "tell a story" worth investigating, said the diplomat.
The second diplomat said the findings would figure in a report on Syria that will be presented to the IAEA's 35-nation board next week ahead of a scheduled two-day board meeting starting Nov. 24.
Attempts to reach IAEA spokespeople after office hours for comment were unsuccessful.
Diplomats already told The Associated Press late last month that air and soil samples taken at the site bombed last year by Israeli warplanes had turned up traces of elements that the agency felt needed to be followed up.
The findings are important after months of uncertainty about the status of the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Preliminary results of the environmental samples collected from the site by an IAEA team were inconclusive, adding weight to Syrian assertions that no trips beyond the initial IAEA visit in June were necessary.
The U.S. says the facility hit by Israeli warplanes more than a year ago was a nearly completed reactor that — when on line — could produce plutonium, a pathway to nuclear arms.
Covert program denied
But Damascus denies running a covert program.
Ibrahim Othman, Syria's nuclear chief, has said his country would wait for final environmental results before deciding how to respond to repeated IAEA requests for follow-up visits to the one in June, when the samples were collected.
But a diplomat attending a closed IAEA meeting in September told the AP that Syrian Ambassador Mohammed Badi Khattab suggested his country would not allow further visits under any circumstances because it was still technically at war with Israel and was concerned any additional IAEA probe would expose some of its non-nuclear military secrets.
Beyond wanting to revisit the site bombed by Israel, IAEA experts also want to follow up on U.S. Israeli and other intelligence that North Korea was involved in building the alleged Syrian program.
Also, IAEA officials have been seeking permission to visit three other sites purportedly linked to the alleged reactor destroyed by the Israelis — although Syria already has said that those locations are off limits because they are in restricted military areas.
Syria fears the IAEA probe could lead to a massive investigation similar to the probe Iran has been subjected to for more than five years — and to related fallout. Iran is under U.N. sanctions because of its refusal to heed Security Council demands to curb its nuclear activities.
IAEA experts came back June 25 from a four-day visit carrying air and soil samples from the Al Kibar site hit by Israel. But intelligence suggests that radioactive material had not yet been introduced into the alleged reactor before it was destroyed.
That left the inspectors looking for other components, including minute quantities of graphite, a cooling element in the type of North Korean prototype that allegedly was being built with help from Pyongyang. Such a reactor contains hundreds of tons of graphite, and any major explosion would have sent dust over the immediate area.