By William J. Broad
The New York Times
The puzzling site in Syria that Israeli jets bombed in September grew more curious on Friday with the release of a satellite photograph showing new construction there that resembles the site’s former main building.
Israel’s air attack was directed against what Israeli and American intelligence analysts had judged to be a partly constructed nuclear reactor. The Syrians vigorously denied the atomic claim.
Before the attack, satellite imagery showed a tall, square building there measuring about 150 feet long per side.
After the attack, the Syrians wiped the area clean, with some analysis calling the speed of the cleanup a tacit admission of guilt. The barren site is on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, 90 miles north of the Iraqi border.
The image released Friday came from a private company, DigitalGlobe, in Longmont, Colo. It shows a tall, square building under construction that appears to closely resemble the original structure, with the exception that the roof is vaulted instead of flat. The photo was taken from space on Wednesday.
Given the international uproar that unfolded after the bombing, “we can assume it’s not a reactor,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that has analyzed the Syrian site.
If international inspectors eventually get to the site, he added, they will have a more difficult time looking for nuclear evidence. “The new building,” he noted, “covers whatever remained of the destroyed one.”
Skeptics have criticized the nuclear accusation, saying the public evidence that has so far come to light was ambiguous at best. They noted, for instance, that at the time of the attack the site had no obvious barbed wire or air defenses that would normally ring a sensitive military facility.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna recently became aware of the new construction, a European diplomat said Friday.
“Obviously, they’re keeping an eye on the site,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s diplomatic delicacy.
As a signer to an agreement with the atomic agency, Syria is obligated to report the construction of a nuclear reactor to international inspectors. Nuclear reactors can make plutonium for the core of atom bombs, and therefore secretive work on reactors is usually interpreted as military in nature.
Senior Syrian officials continue to deny that a nuclear reactor was under construction, insisting that what Israel destroyed was a largely empty military warehouse.
Mohamed ElBaradei, who directs the atomic agency, this week told Al-Hayat, an Arabic-language newspaper based in London, that his agency wanted to inspect the site.
“So far, we have not received any information about any nuclear programs in Syria,” he said, according to a transcript posted on the newspaper’s Web site. Dr. ElBaradei said he had asked for the Syrians’ permission “to allow the agency to visit the facility and to verify that it was not nuclear.”
He added: “The Syrian brothers did not allow us to visit and inspect the location.”
While some analysts have suggested that the new building might slow down international inspectors, Dr. ElBaradei said in the interview that his agency had sensitive “technologies to assure that the location did not host a nuclear facility.”
The satellite photographs, he added, led experts to doubt “that the targeted construction” was in fact a nuclear reactor.
Jan 12, 2008
By William J. Broad