Assad: Alleged nuclear site hit by IAF has been built over
In newspaper interview, Syria president says his country will hold peace talks with any Israel leadership.
Syrian president Bashar Assad denounced U.S. claims that a Syrian site bombed by Israel two years ago was a nearly finished nuclear reactor, and said in comments published Monday that the location has been built over.
Assad's remarks in the Emirates' Al Khaleej daily confirmed statements made last month by two Western diplomats with the Vienna-based United Nations nuclear watchdog.
The diplomats quoted Syrian nuclear chief Ibrahim Othman as telling the International Atomic Energy Agency that Syria built a new missile facility on the bombed site in a remote desert area.
However, Assad didn't elaborate what the new construction was at Al Kibar.
The autocratic Syrian leader's comments appeared to be an effort to close the chapter on the issue of the bombed site amid a recent drive by Damascus for better relations with Washington and the new Obama administration.
The diplomats in Vienna had said the new structure appeared to be a missile control center or an actual launching pad. Syria had previously said only that the site was military in nature and that it was being rebuilt.
Damascus has denied secret nuclear activities but has blocked IAEA inspectors from visits beyond an initial inspection of Al Kibar.
Israel Air Force warplanes reportedly destroyed the site in the Syrian desert in Sept. 2007. Israel has not commented on the strike, but months later Washington presented intelligence purporting to show the target was a reactor under construction, built with North Korean help that would have been able to produce plutonium once completed.
In the Monday interview, Assad said that America justified the bombing eight months later and questioned why Washington waited so long to announce the alleged evidence.
Syria, Assad said, allowed the IAEA to visit the site shortly after its request last May and the team from the UN watchdog arrived in June.
"Have we had any nuclear activities we wouldn't have allowed them to come," Assad was quoted as saying.
Environmental samples from IAEA's trip revealed traces of man-made uranium and graphite but UN officials say it's too early to say whether the graphite - a common element in North Korean prototype reactors - had any nuclear applications.
Assad also disputed the uranium find.
"Where did the uranium come from, he asked in the interview. Under construction means that it was not built yet," he said, implying that there wouldn't have been any uranium traces unless the site was completed.
Assad: We'll talk peace with any Israel leadership
Assad also told the Gulf newspaper on Monday that Damascus will negotiate with any Israeli government irrespective of its political orientation, adding that there was little difference between the political left and the right.
"One is bad and the other is awful," the Syrian leader told Al Khaleej, adding that Arab states should not hang their hopes on the ideological make-up of the Israeli cabinet.
"The right-wing is right-wing, and the left-wing is right-wing," Assad said. "The right kills Arabs and the left kills Arabs. There is no value to all of these hopes," the Syrian president said.
Assad said that a peace deal with Israel was possible but that normal relations would only be possible if Israel ended its conflict with the Palestinians.
"There will perhaps be an embassy and formalities, but if you want peace then it has to be comprehensive. We give them the choice between comprehensive peace and a peace agreement which does not have any real value on the ground," Assad told Al-Khaleej.
"There is a difference between a peace agreement and peace itself. A peace agreement is a piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise," he said.
"Our people will not accept that, especially since there are half a million Palestinians in our country whose position remains unresolved. It is impossible under these terms to have peace in the natural sense."
Syria and Israel held indirect talks last year under Turkish mediation. Talks focused on the Golan Heights which Israel captured in a 1967 Middle East war and on Syria's relationship with Iran, Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah group.
Syria is demanding that Israel commits to a withdrawal ofIsraeli troops from the Golan.
The indirect talks, put on hold due to the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in September, were disrupted further after the recent Israeli war in Gaza.
U.S. Senator John Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after a meeting with Assad in Damascus last month that Syria was prepared to resume the talks but wanted U.S. participation.
Assad said it was in the Palestinians' interests to coordinate with Damascus over its peace talks with Israel to avoid Israel putting off a resolution with the Palestinians.
"We believe that if Israel signs (a peace agreement) with Syria, Israel will put away the Palestinian question," he said.
Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel but it is often described as a cold peace since relations extend little beyond official government contacts.