Syria: Bombed Site Was Not a Nuclear Reactor

Syria's foreign minister on Monday repeated his country's denials that a site bombed by Israel last year was a nascent nuclear reactor but said he wished his country had such a program to counter Israel's nuclear might.

U.N. nuclear inspectors visited the site in northern Syria last week to investigate U.S. allegations that Syria was hiding elements of a potential nuclear arms program.

Olli Heinonen, a deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he was satisfied with what was achieved on the four-day trip but that "there is still work that needs to be done" in following up on the claims.

Syrian authorities imposed a virtual news blackout on the inspectors' trip, and few details of the visit have surfaced beyond the fact that Syrian authorities allowed the three-man inspecting team to visit the Al Kibar site, which Israeli jets targeted in September. Syria has said the site was a non-nuclear military facility.

"As a Syrian citizen, I think that had Syria had such a secret program, it wouldn't have allowed inspectors to visit the site....This is logic," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said at a joint news conference in Damascus with his Norwegian counterpart, Jonas Gahr Stoere.

"But as a citizen, I wish that Syria would have such a program because Israel simply has made strides in manufacturing nuclear weapons," he said.

Syria's vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, said Wednesday his country allowed U.N. inspectors to visit the site destroyed by Israeli jets to prove that U.S. allegations of a covert Syrian nuclear program were false.

Al-Sharaa said, however, that the inspectors from the IAEA, the U.N.'s nuclear monitoring agency, will not be allowed to investigate beyond the Al Kibar site, despite a U.N. request to visit three other suspect locations.

Damascus strongly denies U.S. allegations that it is involved in any nuclear activities and fears that Washington could use the accusations to rally international pressure against it.

Al-Moallem also said a new round of indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel will be held soon in Turkey, which has been mediating between the two sides for around a year. He said such talks are "good bases for direct negotiations."

"Like any process, there are ups and downs, but what is more important is that the two sides should go on with negotiations to reach these bases," al-Moallem said.

"There is a chance to achieve a just and comprehensive peace," he said. "We hope the Israelis will not miss it by their partisan differences."

Syria and Israel announced last month that they were holding indirect peace talks under Turkish mediation. Previous peace talks broke down in 2000 because of disagreements over final borders and peace terms.

The Norwegian foreign minister, who met with Syrian President Bashar Assad Monday, praised the indirect talks between Israel and Syria as a "courageous" step that requires the contribution by all parties.