"It has now been agreed that an agency team will visit Syria during the period 22-24 of June. I look forward to Syria's full co-operation in this matter," Mohamed ElBaradei told a meeting of the agency's 35-nation board of governors," reports The Times of London.
The visit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) comes after Syria was accused of launching a covert nuclear program with North Korean aid – an accusation Syria has always denied. Last September, Israeli fighter planes bombed a desert facility in the east of the country, which, the US government said, was being used for nuclear purposes, reports The New York Times.
The atomic agency, the nuclear monitor of the United Nations, had pledged to investigate after American intelligence officials released evidence in late April of what they described as a clandestine nuclear reactor that had been "nearing operational capability" a month before the bombing.
The evidence included a series of close-up photographs of what the Americans claimed was the partly built reactor before its destruction. The Israeli airstrike on Sept. 6 spurred international debate over whether the Syrians were starting a secret program to make nuclear weapons.
Syria has strongly denied the charges. However, it wiped the Euphrates site clean of rubble late last year and erected a new building where the destroyed one had been — a step nuclear experts said would complicate the job of hunting for atomic clues. Some analysts said the rapid cleanup and new construction had been tacit admissions of guilt.
[Mr.] ElBaradei said the agency has been discussing the matter with Syrian authorities since it learned of the allegations in April, eight months after the Israeli strike.
The purpose of the talks, ElBaradei said, was to arrange "a visit to Syria at an early date to verify, to the extent possible at this stage, the veracity of the information available to the agency.
"Syria, like all states with comprehensive safeguards agreements, has an obligation to report the planning and construction of any nuclear facility to the agency," the IAEA chief said.
The Bush administration is pressing U.N. inspectors to broaden their search for possible secret nuclear facilities in Syria, hinting that Damascus's nuclear program might be bigger than the single alleged reactor destroyed by Israeli warplanes last year.
At least three sites have been identified by U.S. officials and passed along to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is negotiating with Syria for permission to conduct inspections in the country, according to U.S. government officials and Western diplomats. U.S. officials want to know if the suspect sites may have been support facilities for the alleged Al Kibar reactor destroyed in an Israeli air raid Sept. 6, the sources said.
In Syria, the accusations have been met with denials, Syria Today magazine reports.
Samir Altaqi, the general coordinator at Damascus' Orient Centre for Studies, believes that Syria will react to the US allegations by cooperating fully with the international community. "They will make a full disclosure because they have the best defence: innocence. Syria will be able to demonstrate that it has adhered to all of its international obligations," he said
Syrian government officials would not comment on the IAEA visit, but Ahmed Salkini, press secretary at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, provided a statement to The New York Times denying the broader accusations:
"This fabricated story by the U.S. administration will deconstruct from within and without. We are working on different fronts, and with different parties, to ensure that this fabrication is exposed to the world, and this administration embarrassed, once again."
"Acquiring nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is an international trend that all countries are rightfully pursuing. In Syria, we want this to be done within an Arab context, which was discussed and agreed during the Arab Summit in Riyadh."
In Vienna, ElBaradei also sought to reassert his agency's control over the nuclear regulation regime. During his address, he condemned the US and Israel for their unilateral actions targeting Syria, reports the Los Angeles Times blog Babylon & Beyond.
[ElBaradei] also criticized Israel and the U.S., which gave Israel the go-ahead to strike the site last year. ElBaradei said Washington and Israel should have gone to his agency, an arm of the United Nations, before launching air raids.
"It is deeply regrettable that information concerning this installation was not provided to the agency in a timely manner and that force was resorted to unilaterally before the agency was given an opportunity to establish the facts, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Nonproliferation Treaty and Syria's Safeguards Agreement. I should like to remind everybody that NPT states parties have unanimously reaffirmed that the agency is the competent authority responsible for verifying and assuring ... compliance by states with their safeguards agreements."
In response, critics say the agency has to prove its independent worth by forcing Syria to come clean over its nuclear ambitions.