US accuses Syria of building secret reactor with NKorea's help

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States has accused Syria of building a secret nuclear reactor with North Korea's help, charging that the facility had a military purpose until Israel destroyed it in a September raid.

Damascus immediately rejected what its ambassador to Washington called "a ridiculous story," while US officials suggested the next step should be for UN inspectors to go to Syria to investigate.

"The Syrian regime must come clean before the world," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "The construction of this reactor was a dangerous and potentially destabilizing development for the region and the world."

Amid concerns that the revelations could upset six-country talks aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs, Perino underlined that Washington remained committed to that diplomatic initiative.

But the United States will work with China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas to create "a rigorous verification mechanism to ensure that such conduct and other nuclear activities have ceased," she said.

Her two-page statement, released after top US national security officials briefed US lawmakers on the issue Thursday, also did not specify any consequences for Syria, an ally of US archfoe Iran.

But she said Syrian secrecy fueled US fears that the facility had a military purpose.

"We have good reason to believe that reactor, which was damaged beyond repair on September 6 of last year, was not intended for peaceful purposes."

A senior US intelligence official said the reactor was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on September 6, 2007 as it was nearing completion, although it had not been loaded with uranium fuel.

"Israel felt that this reactor posed such an existential threat that a different approach was required," he said.

In a briefing for reporters, senior officials said Israel and the United States discussed what to do about it, but Israel acted on its own with no green light from Washington.

"None was asked. None was given," said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We had looked at some approaches that involved a mix of diplomacy and the threat of military force with the goal of trying to ensure that the reactor was either dismantled or permanently disabled before it became operational," the official said.

A senior intelligence official said that before it was destroyed the reactor was ready to go into operation "in weeks and possibly months."

North Korea's motive for helping Syria build the reactor was "cash," the senior administration official said.

US intelligence also examined but rejected the possibility that plutonium produced by the Syrian reactor was intended for North Korea.

"Our judgment, based on the overwhelming body of evidence, was this was in Syria for Syria," a senior intelligence official said.

The statements came after the White House and the CIA briefed key lawmakers on the partnership between two countries that have been frequent US foes on a range of issues.

Intelligence and administration officials also briefed reporters, and said Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation began in the late 1990s and that the nuclear reactor project was believed to have begun in 2001.

Because other elements of a weapons program, such as a plutonium reprocessing plant, had not been detected, US intelligence was less certain that the plutonium was for nuclear weapons, they said.

Among the evidence displayed were photographs taken inside the reactor showing construction of the shield for the reactor core, and control rods and refueling ports on top of the reactor.

The reactor and the building that housed it were similar in design to the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon, which produces plutonium, the officials said.

Perino said Washington had briefed the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. A US official, who requested anonymity, said Washington would like IAEA inspectors "to investigate this."

The Syrian embassy charged in a statement that the United States "may have helped execute" the Israeli air strike and pointedly tied the charges to the widely discredited weapons-of-mass-destruction case for invading Iraq.

"The Syrian government hopes that the international community and the American public, particularly, will be more cautious and aware this time around in facing such unfounded allegations," it said.