Diplomats say partial results of samples from a Syrian site bombed by Israel last September show nothing to back up U.S. assertions that the target was a secret nuclear reactor.
The diplomats cautioned that the results from the probe conducted by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, are preliminary because findings of more detailed environmental tests are still outstanding.
Still, two of the three who spoke to The Associated Press said that IAEA officials did not expect the results from the samples still being tested to strongly contradict the first results.
All three diplomats were informed of the status of the IAEA probe but demanded anonymity because their information was confidential.
Washington says that the Al Kibar site that the Israel Air Force destroyed last year was a near-finished plutonium-producing reactor built with North Korean help, and that Damascus continues to hide linked facilities. Syria denies that.
While allowing a small IAEA team to visit the bombed structure in a remote part of the Syrian desert earlier this year, Damascus subsequently turned down an agency request to revisit that and other suspect sites. That, and no evidence of a nuclear program from the rest of the samples, could spell the end of the investigation into the U.S. allegations.
IAEA inspectors looking for unreported nuclear activity usually test for radioactivity. But in this case, their mission was more difficult.
According to intelligence given to the Vienna-based agency by the U.S., Israel and a third, unidentified country, the alleged reactor was not yet completed at the time of the Sept. 6, 2007, bombing. That meant no nuclear material would have been present.
So, the inspectors looked for minute quantities of graphite, which is used as a cooling element in the type of North Korean prototype that was allegedly being built. Such a reactor contains hundreds of tons of graphite, and any major explosion would have sent dust over the immediate area.
But - if they were interested in a cover-up - the Syrians would have scoured the region to bury, wash away and otherwise remove any such traces. Long before the time of the June IAEA visit to the site, it had been encased in concrete that served as the foundation of a new building erected by the Syrians.
Former UN nuclear inspector David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security closely tracks suspect secret proliferators, said another possibility was that the IAF bombs did not penetrate deeply enough into the building to disperse the graphite.
While it is possible that none of the samples will yield traces of graphite, Albright said it was important to wait for the second batch of results, which are more sensitive and can pick up smaller quantities.
Beyond Al Kibar, the agency is also interested in going to three other locations suspected of harboring other secret nuclear activities - sites the Syrians insist are off limits because opening them up would expose military secrets.
More broadly, IAEA experts want to use a follow-up visit to put questions to Syrian officials based on intelligence they have been given outlining years of extensive cooperation between the Syrians and teams of visiting North Korean nuclear officials.
North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006. It is believed by experts to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 10 nuclear bombs before agreeing to dismantle its weapons program early last year. It recently threatened to restart its nuclear reactor because of alleged U.S. failure to fulfill obligations under an international disarmament-for-aid deal.
Diplomats say Syria is strenuously denying any concerted North Korean presence in the country - despite U.S. intelligence alleging that the building bombed was a reactor of the type only built by the communist state.
They said Syrian officials described meetings between nuclear officials from Pyongyang and their Syrian counterparts as occasional and informal.
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