US says North Korea helped Syria build nuclear reactor

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US intelligence agencies have produced evidence which the White House says proves that North Korea helped Syria build a secret nuclear reactor before it was bombed by Israeli warplanes last year.

After seven months of secrecy, the Bush administration has gone public with what it claims is video evidence of North Koreans at the suspected nuclear reactor in Syria, just before it was destroyed on 6 September last.

The timing is suspicious however and is raising eyebrows at the US State Department where negotiations are far advanced on reaching a deal to lift sanctions on North Korea.

Officials see the hand of Vice- President Dick Cheney and other hawks behind yesterday's release of intelligence files. They expect it will derail a deal that would see North Korea removed from Washington's list of states that are sponsors of terrorism.

An administration official told the New York Times: "making public the pictures is likely to inflame the North Koreans. And that's just what opponents of this whole arrangement want, because they think the North Koreans will stalk off."

The White House is unhappy with the terms of a deal negotiated by Christopher Hill, a US assistant secretary of state who deals with North Korea. The policy has switched from trying to topple the government of Kim Jong-il to seeking common cause with North Korea's neighbours Russia, China, South Korea and Japan on a future strategy.

President George Bush has been telling aides not to agree to anything that "makes me look weak," say former officials.

Mr Cheney is reported to oppose the terms of a deal that would remove North Korea from the terrorism list and lift sanctions with forcing it to explain why it is still buying uranium enrichment equipment from Pakistan. The concern is that it could provide a second route to making a bomb if North Korea was forced to give up its plutonium programme.

American intelligence officials made their presentation to key members of Congress yesterday and are believed to have shown video footage provided by Israeli intelligence services. The video allegedly shows Korean faces among the workers at the plant. Other images apparently show a nuclear reactor.

"We are convinced, based on a variety of information, that North Korea assisted Syrian covert nuclear activities both before and after the reactor was destroyed," a declassified US intelligence document states.

A senior Bush administration official also said the US and Israel discussed how to deal with the suspected reactor before Israel took the decision to destroy it on its own.

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