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US Hits IAEA's El-Baradei Over Syria Nuclear Assistance

The Bush administration has rebuked International Atomic Energy Agency Chief Mohamed ElBaradei over the U.N. agency's plans to help Syria with a civilian nuclear-power program. The State Department said such assistance, at a time when the IAEA is investigating a suspected secret Syrian nuclear reactor, is wholly inappropriate. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department has delivered an unusual public rebuke to the IAEA chief, after Mohamed ElBaradei said technical assistance to Damascus on civilian nuclear power should go forward despite an ongoing agency inquiry into Syrian activities.

The IAEA has been investigating a remote facility in northern Syria that was bombed and destroyed by Israeli warplanes in September of last year. The United States subsequently released aerial photos of the site and other evidence suggesting the building was a partially-completed nuclear reactor, perhaps being built with North Korean help.

IAEA officials in a preliminary report last week said the wrecked building strongly resembled a nuclear reactor, and that traces of uranium had been discovered amid the ruins.

Nonetheless, ElBaradei said Syria has a right to IAEA help on a proposed civilian power reactor, and that there is no legal basis for denying Syria a $350,000 assistance package from the U.N. agency.

The position drew a sharp rejoinder from State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack:

"It is wholly inappropriate, we believe, given the fact that Syria is under investigation by the IAEA for building a nuclear reactor, outside the bounds of its international commitments. And for the IAEA to be involved in providing technical information concerning nuclear activities would seem to be contradictory, it not ironic," he said.

Syria denies concealing nuclear activities. But the preliminary IAEA report last week said Syria had not heeded requests for documentation on the building destroyed by the Israelis, and refused repeated requests for IAEA personnel to visit three other sites believed linked to the alleged reactor.

U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA Greg Schulte said last Friday the report reinforced the U.S. assessment that Syria was secretly building a nuclear reactor in violation of IAEA safeguards obligations.

The Bush administration has had a tense relationship with the IAEA's ElBaradei, who U.S. officials say often takes a benign view of reports indicating secret nuclear weapons activity by Iran.