VIENNA - Syria has told fellow Arab countries that it will not permit an International Atomic Energy Agency probe to extend beyond a site bombed by Israel, despite agency interest in three other suspect locations, diplomats told the Associated Press yesterday.
The agency's main focus during its planned June 22-24 visit to Syria is a building in the country's remote eastern desert that was destroyed by Israeli jets in September.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei announced Monday that Damascus has agreed to an agency check of US assertions that target was a plutonium-producing reactor that was near completion, and thus at the stage where it could generate the fissile material for nuclear arms.
The UN agency is also interested in following up on information that Syria may have three other undeclared atomic facilities. Diplomats and a nuclear specialist told the AP on Monday that at least one of the sites might have equipment that can reprocess nuclear material into the fissile core of warheads.
One of the diplomats said the IAEA was following up on a US intelligence-based tip but emphasized the IAEA had not seen the intelligence. The nuclear specialist said two of the military sites were operational and one was under construction. He and the diplomats asked for anonymity because their information is confidential.
Yesterday, a senior diplomat familiar with the planned IAEA trip to Syria told the AP that expectations were Syria would gradually warm to the idea of giving agency specialists access to those three sites, as well as the bombed Al Kibar facility.
But two other diplomats briefed on the Syrian stance said outside a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation board that a senior official from Damascus had ruled that out during a meeting with chief delegates of the 10 Arab nations accredited to the IAEA.
The diplomats said Syrian atomic energy chief Ibrahim Othman told the Arab delegates his country could not open secret military sites to outside perusal as long as Syria and Israel remained technically in a state of war.
After fighting three wars and clashing in Lebanon, Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose last round of peace talks collapsed eight years ago. Both countries recently confirmed that they are holding peace talks through Turkish mediators.
The diplomats also said Othman expressed fear that too much openness on Syria's part would lead to years of relentless international perusal of the kind Iran's nuclear program is now undergoing, despite Tehran's assertions its aims are purely peaceful.
After-hours calls to the Syrian Mission to the IAEA in Vienna for comment went unanswered.
President Bashar Assad of Syria denied again that his country has a secret nuclear program yesterday in United Arab Emirates newspapers.
Neither the United States nor Israel told the IAEA about the bombed site until late April, about a year after they obtained what they considered decisive intelligence: dozens of photographs from a handheld camera of the inside and outside of the compound.
Syria had not reacted to repeated agency requests since for a visit to check out the allegations.
Satellite photos appear to show construction crews using the interval to erect another structure over the site - a move that heightened suspicions of a coverup.