United Nations investigators have found traces of uranium at a Syrian site Washington says was a secret nuclear reactor, nearly completed before Israel bombed the target last year, diplomats said on Monday.
They went on to say that the uranium contamination turned up in some environmental swipe samples UN inspectors took at the site during a visit last June. They said the finding was not enough to draw conclusions but raised concerns requiring further clarification.
The International Atomic Energy Agency had no immediate comment. But word of the finding leaked hours after IAEA officials confirmed Director Mohamed ElBaradei was preparing a formal written report on Syria for the first time.
Moreover, Syria has been made an official agenda item at the year-end Nov. 27-28 meeting of the UN watchdog's 35-nation board of governors, unlike previously when IAEA officials said initial inquiries were inconclusive.
Syria denies U.S. allegations that it was building a reactor with North Korean expertise designed to produce plutonium, the main atomic bomb ingredient reprocessed from spent uranium fuel, in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Syria has argued that the unverified U.S. intelligence was fabricated.
ElBaradei told an IAEA board meeting in September that preliminary findings from test samples taken by inspectors granted a visit in June to the desert location hit by Israel bore no traces of atomic activity.
Diplomats accredited to the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog said a wider range of samples had now been analyzed by its sleuths and some had traces of a certain uranium compound.
"It isn't enough to conclude or prove what the Syrians were doing but the IAEA has concluded this requires further investigation," said one diplomat accredited to the IAEA.
"It was a man-made component, not natural [ore]. There is no sign there was already nuclear fuel or [production] activity there," another diplomat told Reuters.
This diplomat noted that such traces could have been carried to the site inadvertently on the clothes of scientists or workers or on equipment brought in from elsewhere.
That could echo a key, past finding made in the IAEA's long-running investigation of Iran's secretive nuclear program.
Diplomats close to the IAEA have said Syria has ignored agency requests to check three military sites for equipment or other evidence possibly linked to the alleged reactor site.
"The agency clearly thinks it has something significant enough to report to put Syria on the [nuclear safeguards] agenda right after North Korea and Iran," said a senior diplomat with ties to the Vienna-based UN watchdog.
"It's been made clear to us that the samples raise further questions," said a fourth diplomat, who, like others, asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing confidential information.
The IAEA has been probing Syria since May, shortly after Washington turned over intelligence about the site - but only months after an Israel Air Force strike flattened it and Syria swept it clean.
ElBaradei deplored the delay in intelligence-sharing and a U.S. failure to alert the IAEA before the bombing, saying this would make it very difficult for the world's NPT guardian agency to establish the facts "because the corpse is gone."