Syria's ambassador to Washington denied Friday reports in the American media that an Israel Air Force strike on his country 10 days ago targeted a nuclear project being undertaken with the cooperation of North Korea.
In an interview to Newsweek, Imad Moustapha called the reports "absolutely, totally, fundamentally ridiculous and untrue."
"There are no nuclear North Korean-Syrian facilities whatsoever in Syria," Moustapha said.
The Washington Post on Saturday quoted an American Middle East expert as saying that the alleged IAF strike in northern Syria was directly connected to a shipment Syria received from North Korea three days earlier.
The expert spoke on condition of anonymity in order to protect his sources, who the report said are comprised of "Israeli participants" in the strike. He said the shipment was labeled as cement, but Israel believed it carried nuclear equipment.
The U.S. daily said the expert believed the IAF strike targeted a facility the Syrians claim serves as an "agricultural research center," but Israel believes is used to extract uranium from phosphates.
The Washington Post also reported that the secrecy of the mission, on which Israel refuses to release details, was extended to those who carried it out. He said that the pilots providing cover for the aircraft that attacked the facility were not given specifics of the mission, and the pilots who actually carried out the strike were only briefed after they were in the air.
While neither side has explained what exactly happened in the early hours of September 6, a number of Israeli and American officials have speculated that the alleged attack was designed to thwart the possible development of Syrian nuclear capabilities.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization seeking to stop the spread of non-conventional weapons in the world, said that Syria began testing uranium deposits found on its territory in the late 1980s and subsequently began attempting to extract uranium from its vast phosphates reserves. It then constructed an experimental micro-plant in the central Syrian city of Homs with the assistance of the Atomic Energy Commission, to study the process of extracting uranium from phosphoric acid, the organization said.
According to NTI, the micro-plant was designed to form the basis of an industrial-size plant which would supply a nuclear reactor if Syria ever built one.
A senior U.S. nuclear official said on Friday that North Koreans were in Syria and that Damascus may have had contacts with secret suppliers to obtain nuclear technology.
"Syria was on the U.S. nuclear watch list," said acting deputy assistant secretary for nuclear nonproliferation policy Andrew Semmel, asserting that foreign technicians were in the country and that there had been possible contacts with suppliers for nuclear equipment.
Semmel didn't name the suppliers, but said that he couldn't exclude that the network run by disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan was possibly involved.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Israel had gathered satellite imagery showing possible North Korean cooperation with Syria on a nuclear facility.
North Korea, which has a long alliance with Syria, condemned the Israeli air incursion. Israeli experts say North Korea and Iran both have been major suppliers of Syria's missile stock.
"There are indicators that they do have something going on there, he said," Semmel said. "We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen."
"So good foreign policy, good national security policy, would suggest that we pay very close attention to that," he said. "We're watching very closely. Obviously, the Israelis were watching very closely."
Asked if the suppliers could have been North Koreans, he said: "There are North Korean people there. There's no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran."
Asked if the so-called Khan network, which supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, could have been involved, he said he wouldn't exclude it.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on Semmel's remarks, but noted that the United States had long-standing concerns about North Korea and nuclear proliferation.
"We've also expressed, over time, our concerns about North Korea's activities in terms of dealing with A.Q. Khan and others around the globe," he told reporters.
McCormack said he was not aware of any specific link between North Korea and Syria.
'Safe havens' for nuclear activity
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said North Korea may be using Syria and Iran as "safe havens" for its nuclear activity, and another U.S. official was quoted as saying Damascus may be building a nuclear facility with North Korean assistance.
Bolton recently told Haaretz that United States President George W. Bush warned North Korea last year against transferring nuclear material to Syria, Iran or a terrorist organization, saying such a move would be perceived as a "grave threat."
Bolton, now affiliated with the "American Enterprise Institute" in Washington, served Bush in his first term as Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. In that capacity, as well as later, he clashed with other officials, most notably from CIA, regarding Syria's nuclear plans.
A former Israeli official who would not be named said he had heard the attack had been carried out against a facility capable of producing non-conventional weapons.
In an interview on Fox News on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in response to a question on reports of Syrian nuclear development, that her government is working to prevent "the world's most dangerous people from having the world's most dangerous weapons."
Rice did not refer directly to Syria at any point, but said, "That's why we have a Proliferation Security Initiative that tries to intercept dangerous cargos. So this is something that's been at the highest point of the President's agenda since he came into power and we work every day and we watch it every day and we're vigilant about it and we're determined."
Fox also quoted U.S. sources as saying North Korea had apparently transferred to Syria information, technology and uranium-enrichment equipment.
According to a Washington Post report, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said recent satellite images gathered over the past six months, mostly by Israeli sources, indicate Syria may be building such a facility.
Access to the information has been heavily restricted to a team headed by security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of the reports' significance, the Post quoted sources as saying.
Reuters reported Wednesday that U.S. officials had confirmed that the IAF strike, but would not discuss the intended targets.
"The strike I can confirm. The target, I can't," said one U.S. official, adding that there had been more than one strike. Another official called reports on the likely targets "confused."
The New York Times said Wednesday that likely targets were weapons caches Israel believed Iran was sending to Hezbollah via Syria, a claim dismissed later in the day by the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.
"This is blah blah. This is nonsense, this is an unfounded statement. It is not up to the Israelis or anyone else to assess what we have in Syria," said Bashar Ja'afari.
"There was no target, they dropped their munitions. They were running away after they were confronted by our air defense," he added.
The New York Times quoted a Defense Department official as saying the IAF struck at least one target in northeastern Syria, but said it was unclear what the target was and what was the extent of the damage.
Syria said Friday that there would be no military response to the incident. Damascus protested Tuesday to the United Nations about the strike.
Israel has repeatedly declined to comment on the matter, but American television network CNN reported Tuesday that the Israeli government is "very happy with the successful operation."
Senior CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, citing Middle Eastern and Washington sources, said aircraft and possibly even ground forces, who may have directed the planes to their target, took part in the operation.
The attack left "a big hole in the desert," the report said. CNN quoted U.S. government and military sources as saying they were "happy to have Israel convey to both Syria and Iran the message that they can get in and out and strike when necessary."
Al-Jaafari said Israel had violated Syrian air space and dropped munitions, but denied that Israel had landed troops inside Syria.
"This is absolutely not true," he said, adding that the reports were an attempt to show that Israel could land troops wherever it wants.
The only countries that have expressed solidarity with Syria are Iran and North Korea. Russia issued a condemnation of sorts.
Report: U.S. says Israel took images of Syria atomic facility
Meanwhile, the New York Times on Wednesday quoted a Bush Administration official as saying Israel had recently photographed possible nuclear installations in Syria.
"The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left," the New York Times quoted the official as saying.
"One Bush administration official said Israel had recently carried out reconnaissance flights over Syria, taking pictures of possible nuclear installations that Israeli officials believed might have been supplied with material from North Korea," the paper wrote.
"The administration official said Israeli officials believed that North Korea might be unloading some of its nuclear material on Syria," the report said.
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