The Syrian president denounced US claims that a Syrian site bombed by Israel two years ago was a nearly finished nuclear reactor, and said in comments published Monday that the location has been built over.
President Bashar Assad's remarks in the Emirates' Al-Khaleej daily confirmed statements made last month by two Western diplomats with the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog. The diplomats quoted Syrian nuclear chief Ibrahim Othman as telling the International Atomic Energy Agency that Syria built a new missile facility on the bombed site in a remote desert area.
However, Assad didn't elaborate what the new construction was at Al Kibar.
The autocratic Syrian leader's comments appeared to be an effort to close the chapter on the issue of the bombed site amid a recent drive by Damascus for better relations with Washington and the new Obama administration.
The diplomats in Vienna had said the new structure appeared to be a missile control center or an actual launching pad. Syria had previously said only that the site was military in nature and that it was being rebuilt.
Damascus has denied secret nuclear activities but has blocked IAEA inspectors from visits beyond an initial inspection of Al Kibar.
'Where did the uranium come from?'
Israeli warplanes destroyed the site in the Syrian desert in Sept. 2007. Israel has not commented on the strike, but months later Washington presented intelligence purporting to show the target was a reactor under construction, built with North Korean help that would have been able to produce plutonium once completed.
In the Monday interview, Assad said that "America justified the bombing eight months later" and questioned why Washington waited so long to announce the alleged evidence.
Syria, Assad said, allowed the IAEA to visit the site shortly after its request last May and the team from the UN watchdog arrived in June.
"Had we had any nuclear activities we wouldn't have allowed them to come," Assad was quoted as saying.
Environmental samples from IAEA's trip revealed traces of man-made uranium and graphite but UN officials say it's too early to say whether the graphite, a common element in North Korean prototype reactors, had any nuclear applications.
Assad also disputed the uranium find.
"Where did the uranium come from," he asked in the interview. "Under construction means that it was not built yet," he said, implying that there wouldn't have been any uranium traces unless the site was completed.