DAMASCUS, Syria – Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said Friday that the allegations that his country was building a nuclear reactor were fabricated and were driven by U.S. officials trying to torpedo Washington's nuclear deal with North Korea.
"There are the hawks (in the U.S. administration) who are against any deal with North Korea," he said. "Some others are much more moderate and they believe in dialogue and diplomacy."
Top U.S. intelligence officials in Washington on Thursday said the United States became aware North Korea was helping Syria with a nuclear project in 2003. The critical intelligence that cemented that conclusion came last year after dozens of photographs taken from ground level showed the construction both inside and outside the building, said the intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.
After Israel's September attack, the U.S. alleged Syria tried to bury evidence of the reactor's existence and erected a new building to hide the site. The building is not believed to house a new reactor, the officials said.
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Syria's president scoffed at U.S. claims that his country was building a nuclear reactor, according to excerpts of an interview published Friday.
President Bashar Assad questioned the logic of such allegations and insisted once again that a site in Syria destroyed by Israel seven months ago was an unused military facility.
"Is it logical for a nuclear site to be left without protection and not guarded by anti-aircraft guns?" Assad told the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan, which published excerpts of the interview Friday. "A nuclear site under the watch of satellites in the middle of Syria in the desert and in an open location?" Assad added sarcastically.
He repeated Syria's previous contention that the site destroyed by the Israelis was "a Syrian military position under construction and not a nuclear reactor."
The full interview with Assad, to be published Sunday, was conducted Tuesday, just as U.S. intelligence officials announced they would show Congress members evidence supporting their case that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance before Israel destroyed it.
Assad did not specifically address the allegations that North Korea was aiding Syria in the published excerpts.
A top U.S. official told The Associated Press that the alleged Syrian reactor was within weeks or months of being functional when Israel destroyed it. The facility was mostly completed but still needed significant testing before it could have been declared operational, said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
However both the U.S. intelligence officials and independent analysts said there was no reprocessing facility at the site — something that would be needed to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel for use in a bomb. That gives little confidence that the facility was meant for weapons development, they said.
Syria's government has staunchly denied the U.S. allegations. On Friday, it repeated its stance and accused Washington of misleading Congress about the country's nuclear activity.
"This campaign launched by the U.S. administration is aimed primarily at misguiding the U.S. Congress and international public opinion ... in order to justify the Israeli raid on Syria in September last year, which this administration apparently was involved in executing," an unnamed Syrian government official said in a statement carried by the state news agency, SANA.
A similar statement was issued Thursday by the Syrian Embassy in Washington.
Senior U.S. officials said the U.S. military was not involved in the attack, and the U.S. government, although informed in advance, did not approve it.
Israel has maintained almost total silence since the Sept. 6 airstrike.
The U.S. signed an aid-for-disarmament deal with North Korea last year, but some U.S. officials have criticized the agreement as too generous to Pyongyang.