Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Syria, N. Korea Deny Nuclear Cooperation

The Associated Press reports:

Syria and North Korea denied Tuesday they are cooperating on a Syrian nuclear program, and they accused U.S. officials of spreading the allegations for political reasons -- either to back Israel or to block progress on a deal between Washington and Pyongyang.

A front-page editorial in the government newspaper Tishrin also criticized the United States for failing to condemn a Sept. 6 Israeli air incursion, which it called a violation of international law.

Details of the incursion remain unclear. Israel clamped a news blackout on the raid, while Syria said only that warplanes entered its airspace, came under fire from anti-aircraft defenses and dropped munitions and fuel tanks to lighten their loads while they fled.

U.S. officials have said Israeli warplanes struck a target. A military officer said Israel targeted weapons being shipped to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, but another official's comments raised speculation the Israelis targeted a nuclear installation.

Andrew Semmel, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, said Syria may have had contacts with "secret suppliers" to obtain nuclear equipment. He did not identify the suppliers, but said that North Koreans were in Syria and that he could not exclude involvement by the network run by the disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

North Korea strongly denied it secretly helped Syria develop a nuclear program, maintaining the charge was fabricated by U.S. hard-liners to block progress in the North's relations with the United States.

A Syrian Cabinet minister ridiculed the speculation about any cooperation with North Korea.

"All this rubbish is not true. I don't know how their imagination has reached such creativity," Bouthaina Shaaban said.

"Regretfully, the international press is busy justifying an aggression on a sovereign state and the world should be busy condemning it instead of inventing reasons and aims of this aggression," he told Lebanon's Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar.

Syria's nuclear program has long been considered minimal, and the country is known to have only a small research reactor.

In Vienna, Austria, officials for the International Atomic Energy Agency declined comment. But a diplomat associated with the agency said the IAEA "didn't know anything about any nuclear facility in Syria, and if there is something there, we should know."

Syria was the subject of an IAEA investigation in 2004 on suspicions it could have been a customer of the nuclear black market run by the Khan network -- the same operation that supplied Iran and Libya for their clandestine atomic projects. The diplomat in Vienna, who insisted on anonymity, said the IAEA found no concrete evidence of such activity.

Israeli incursions into Syrian airspace are uncommon, unlike in neighboring Lebanon where Israeli warplanes have regularly made reconnaissance flights since last year's war with Hezbollah. Such flights were reported late Tuesday over southern Lebanon.

W. Patrick Lang, former head of Mideast intelligence at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, said Israel's incursion over Syria may have been staged to convince the Syrians that its forces are still formidable despite the inconclusive war with Hezbollah. Syria may have tempered its response for fear of escalation, he added.

"The Syrians are really worried because of the hostility of the Bush administration," said Lang. "If things degenerate, they could end up on the receiving end of a strike from Israel, with the go-ahead from the U.S."

The editorial in Tishrin, which reflects Syrian government thinking in a country where the media is tightly controlled, said the U.S. accusations show Washington's pro-Israel bias and have no credibility.

It said Washington was "busy on behalf of Israel circulating claims" that the incursion involved "possible nuclear facilities supplied by (North) Korea."

"The strange thing is that the Americans are talking on behalf of Israel and are providing excuses and concocting new false spins such as talking about presumed Syrian nuclear activity and completely turning a blind eye about the Israeli nuclear danger," the Syrian editorial said.

Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but has never acknowledged it.

The Syrian newspaper said the accusations "recall those false claims that the Americans and the British circulated about Iraq's nuclear programs."

Tishrin was referring to Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction program, one reasons cited by the U.S. for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No such weapons were found.

Israeli President Shimon Peres, meanwhile, sought to calm tensions with Syria.

"The nervousness in relations between Syria and ourselves is over," Peres told foreign reporters in Jerusalem. "We are clearly ready to negotiate directly with Syria for peace."

Peres' comment followed similar remarks Monday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who said he has "a lot of respect for the Syrian leader (President Bashar Assad) and for Syrian behavior."

Olmert said he is prepared for peace negotiations with Syria if the conditions are right. He made the offer of peace talks before, but it was the first time he had mentioned Syria since the reported airstrike. In 2000, Israel-Syria talks neared agreement but broke down over final border and peace arrangements.