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IAEA inspects nuclear research reactor in Syria

VIENNA — The UN atomic watchdog said on Tuesday it was inspecting a nuclear research reactor in Damascus because it had doubts about Syria's explanation as to how traces of uranium got there.

In its latest report on Syria, circulated to member states on Monday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that it found Damascus's initial explanation unconvincing.

It therefore decided to carry out a new inspection of the reactor on Tuesday to check Syria's explanations, according to the restricted report, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

The agency confirmed to AFP that inspectors were in Damascus on Tuesday.

The so-called Miniature Neutron Source Reactor or MNSR is already under IAEA safeguards, which means experts routinely carry out inspections there.

But samples taken at the reactor in August 2008 had confirmed the presence of "particles of anthropogenic natural uranium of a type not in Syria's declared inventory."

And the results of the IAEA's examination of the samples "do not support Syria's earlier explanation for the origin and presence of the particles," the report said.

"The agency is investigating Syria's explanation ... and has announced its intention to carry out an inspection at the MNSR on November 17."

The discovery of the traces of uranium at the reactor have raised eyebrows because the IAEA is already investigating allegations that Syria had been building an undeclared nuclear reactor in a remote desert site called Dair Alzour until Israel bombed it in 2007.

Traces of uranium were also found at that site, and the IAEA is trying to establish whether there could be a link between Dair Alzour and the MNSR.

In the case of Dair Alzour, the UN watchdog has more or less ruled out Syria's theory that the uranium came from the Israeli bombs that destroyed the building in September 2007.

And the latest report shows that inspectors are similarly sceptical of Syria's explanation about the provenance of the uranium at the MNSR.

In a meeting earlier this month, Syria "identified other possible sources of the anthropogenic natural uranium particles, including domestically produced yellowcake and small quantities of imported, but previously undeclared, commercial uranyl nitrate," the IAEA report said.

Syria had even provided a document to support its explanation for the presence of the uranyl nitrate at the MNSR.

However, additional samples taken at the MNSR in July did not back up Syria's explanations.

"In light of these results, the agency requested to meet with Syria to discuss the matter further," the report said.

Summing up its Syrian probe so far, the IAEA complained that "essentially, no progress has been made since the last report (in August) to clarify any of the outstanding issues."

Syria was not providing the necessary cooperation, nor the information or access that would enable the IAEA to confirm Syria's statements regarding the non-nuclear nature of the destroyed building on the Dair Alzour site, the report said.

Damascus argues that it is under no obligation to provide further information about Dair Alzour or the other locations because of their military nature.

But the IAEA dismissed such arguments.

"The agency will continue its verification activities to confirm Syria's statements within the authority available to it and subject to the cooperation provided by Syria," it said in the report.