Syrian Leader Reportedly Says His Country Was Approached by Head of Nuclear Black Market

Syria received a letter purportedly written by the head of the same nuclear black market that supplied Iran and Libya with its atomic technology but did not respond, the country's president said in comments published Wednesday.

President Bashar Assad's comments appeared to be the first time that a senior Syrian official linked the country to Abdul Qadeer Khan, the top Pakistani scientist who was exposed in 2004 as the head of an international black market in nuclear technology.

Assad also told the Austrian daily "Die Presse" that the target hit by Israeli combat jets in September was not a nuclear site, describing it only as a "military facility in the process of being built."

Israel has kept silent on what it thought it was targeting in the September air strike, but media reports have cited unnamed U.S. officials and analysts that it was a North Korean-style nuclear reactor.

Former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, subsequently circulated commercial satellite images taken before and after the Israeli raid that he said supported suspicions that the target was indeed a reactor and that the site was given a hasty cleanup by the Syrians to remove incriminating evidence.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which looked at its own set of images, has said nothing publicly about them, but diplomats linked to the agency have told the AP that they were too grainy to draw concrete conclusions. On Wednesday, one of the diplomats — who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue — said the Syrians have not reacted to agency requests for more information.

Khan's black market network was the key supplier of both Iran and Libya.

In the interview, Assad said that in early 2001, "someone brought a letter from a certain Khan," adding, "we didn't know whether the letter was real or a fake from the Israelis who wanted to entice us into a trap.

"In any case, we turned it down," he was quoted as saying. "We had no interest in nuclear weapons or a nuclear reactor. We never met with Khan."

Libya has voluntarily scrapped its nuclear arms program since acknowledging its existence in 2003. Iran has admitted to being a Khan customer of know-how and equipment that included the basis of its present uranium enrichment program — which can be used to create the fissile core of nuclear warheads — but insists it wants to perfect the technology only for its other use, generating reactor fuel. Its refusal to cease enrichment has resulted in two sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions.