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SYRIA: Mystery assassination stalls nuclear probe

September 25, 2008 |  2:33 pm

Iaea

The chief of the United Nations arms control agency dropped a bomb about Syria today at the end of a big week-long meeting in Vienna.

Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told his board of directors that the nuclear inspectors' pointman in Syria had been assassinated, according to two sources, a diplomat and an IAEA official, attending the meeting.

ElBaradei's cryptic comment came at the end of his presentation, when he suddenly said the agency's "interlocutor" in Damascus had been killed. He didn't elaborate, But his statement implied that this killing had slowed down the IAEA's investigation into U.S. and Israeli allegations that Syria was building a plutonium factory out in its eastern hinterlands with the help of North Korean engineers.

According to the diplomat, nobody in else in the room appeared surprised by the announcement about the assassination. Speculation in Vienna was that ElBaradei must have been talking about the assassination of Brig. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman, at a beach resort in the northern port city of Tartus, in early August. 

Intelligence officials and security experts have long suspected Suleiman was in charge of Syria's nuclear and chemical weapons programs. The frequently unreliable Israeli intelligence website Debka was the first to drew a similar connection between Suleiman and Syria's alleged nuclear program very shortly after his death, alleging that the official was the guy in charge of security at the Al Kibar site.

But it also didn't help the IAEA investigation that Israeli air strikes blew the site to smithereens a year ago, ElBaradei said, making it tough for inspectors to figure out what was there.

Syria denies the site was anything but an unused military facility. It allowed inspectors access to the site but refused them entry to a few other key places. It wants the results back from soil samples at the first site before it decides whether to grant inspectors access.

A dozen states called for another report about Syria's alleged nuclear activities the next time the board meets in November. U.S. envoy to the IAEA Greogry Shulte said, "Syria's failure to cooperate with inspectors in a full and timely manner is a matter of serious concern."

-- Julia Damianova in Vienna and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna this week. Credit: Hans Punz / Associated Press

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