US claims photos show Syrian nuclear reactor

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The Independent US

US security experts have published what they believe to be photographs of a secret nuclear facility in Syria, which was bombed by Israeli jets last month.

Their analysis of satellite images in an area near the river Euphrates reveals what they say are buildings similar to a North Korean nuclear reactor capable of producing fuel for a nuclear bomb. The experts, David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector, and Paul Brannan, from the Institute for Science and International Security (Isis), believe they have found the site that could have been the target of a night-time Israeli raid on 6 September. The Israelis imposed a news blackout on the raid, which prompted speculation that the attack may have been a dry run for a strike on Iran.

In a report released yesterday by Isis, the experts say that commercial satellite imagery of the area shows buildings under construction. The buildings have the same footprint as that of North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, which is capable of producing nuclear material for one bomb a year.

Syria admits co-operating with North Korea but says the two countries have no nuclear co-operation. The site is 100 miles from Syria's border with Iraq and close to an airstrip that would allow for easy transportation of personnel. "I'm pretty convinced that Syria was trying to build a nuclear reactor," Mr Albright told The Washington Post yesterday. However the Isis report said the images "raise as many questions as they answer". Isis is an independent research organisation that follows nuclear weapons production around the world.

A week ago ABC News reported that Israel had recruited a spy to take ground photographs of the reactor construction from inside the complex. Because the building was already covered with a roof, they say, a spy may have been necessary to take photographs from inside the reactor building. The Washington Post has reported that the North Korean-style reactor is built gradually on site and the roof would hide what was inside the building.

The Isis experts suspect that Syria was building a small gas-graphite reactor of about 20-25 megawatts, which is large enough to make about one nuclear weapon's worth of plutonium each year.

Israel, which has an estimated 100 nuclear weapons, has remained silent about the bombing raid. Nor has it provided any justification for its raid on a foreign country. Syria flatly denies having a nuclear programme. But secretly building a nuclear reactor would put Syria in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which all signatories must reveal such decisions.

Syria is reported to be to removing what remains of the site, while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also analysing photographs in an attempt to establish what Syria was up to. The director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, is angry at Syria, the Israelis and Western intelligence agencies for failing to pass on information about the alleged secret nuclear programme.

"We have said, 'If any of you has the slightest information showing that there was anything linked to nuclear, we would of course be happy to investigate it,'" Mr ElBaradei told Le Monde. "Frankly, I venture to hope that before people decide to bombard and use force, they will come and see us to convey their concerns." Mr ElBaradei also warned that efforts to contain nuclear proliferation were endangered by military action.

"The use of force can set things back, but it does not deal with the roots of the problem," he said.