Israel Envoys Clash With UN Watchdog Chief Over Syria Probe 'Bias'

ElBaradei tells Israelis: Stop preaching to us over strike on Syria nukes.

Israeli officials traded verbal barbs Thursday with the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, during a heated exchange over an investigation into Syria's alleged atomic program.

Syria became the subject of an International Atomic Energy Agency probe after Israel Air Force jets destroyed what the U.S. says was a nearly finished nuclear reactor built with North Korean help that was configured to produce plutonium - one of the substances used in nuclear warheads.

Israel's chief delegate to the IAEA, Israel Michaeli, charged Mohammed ElBaradei with political bias, and accused him of refusing to meet with Israeli officials. This, Michaeli said, shows ElBaradei has no interest in further information.

Syria denies hiding nuclear activities but has blocked the IAEA's probe into the allegations, refusing to allow UN nuclear inspectors follow-up visits beyond one last year and declining to provide satisfactory explanations for unusual finds of traces of uranium. Damascus says the uranium traces come from Israeli bombs.

ElBaradei has said that Syria's allegations are unlikely, and Israel has repeatedly told the IAEA it did not use such ordnance - something Michaeli repeated in his comments Thursday to the IAEA's 35-nation board.

"Israel has responded ... in good faith to the allegations," he said, in comments to the closed meeting made available to The Associated Press. "Therefore, the repeated call by the director general on Israel to cooperate with this investigation is redundant.

"Had the director general wished for further information from Israel, he would have not refused to meet with Israeli officials and refrained from publicly lashing [out] at Israel."

ElBaradei has repeatedly criticized the Israeli attack, saying it complicated the chances of success of his agency's probe.

On Thursday, ElBaradei hit back at the Israeli delegation.

ElBaradei, departing from normal diplomatic reserve in public, called Michaeli's stance "totally distorted" and Israel's failure to elaborate on what it knew about Syria was "almost an insult to our investigative process."

Looking straight at Michaeli, ElBaradei told him Israel's air strike had prevented the IAEA from carrying out its mandate to verify suspicions of nuclear proliferation in member states.

"You, sir, mentioned that Syria should be deplored and condemned [by us]. But Israel, with its action, is [to be] deplored by not allowing us to do what were are supposed to do under international law," he said.

"You say we refrain from using tools. Israel is not even a member of the [non-proliferation] regime to tell us what to do. We would appreciate you stop preaching to us how we can do our jobs. We are using all tools available to us."

Israel is one of only three countries outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is believed to have an undeclared nuclear arsenal, the only one in the Middle East."

"You [Israel] cannot sit on the fence, making use of the system without being accountable ... I will continue to ask your government ... what information led you to circumvent the IAEA process," ElBaradei said.

"To say I am biased -- I won't dignify that with a response."

The IAEA agrees the uranium traces' origin was not Israeli and not part of Syria's declared inventory. Neither, it says, were similar uranium particles found later at a Damascus research reactor known to the IAEA and inspected once a year.

Syrian envoy Ibrahim Othman dismissed the second find on Thursday, telling IAEA governors it was a vestige of innocuous neutron experiments by physics students. A senior U.N. official told Reuters that Syria's explanations remained unsatisfactory.

ElBaradei, an Egyptian, will retire later this year after 12 years in office during which critics in Israel and the United States suggested he was "soft" on alleged nuclear proliferators.

ElBaradei denied that and suggested Israel's atomic might has added to Middle East instability by spurring others, like Iran, Israel's arch-enemy, to seek nuclear weapons capability.

Diplomats first told the AP that ElBaradei was boycotting requests for meetings with Israel officials earlier this year. The agency back then refused to comment.