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. IAEA chief says no basis for denying Syria help on nuclear plant
VIENNA, Nov 24 (AFP) Nov 24, 2008
The head of the UN atomic watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, said Monday the IAEA had no legal right to deny Syria help in a nuclear power project, as called for by a number of western states.

"A state has the fullest right of membership until proven otherwise," ElBaradei told a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) technical assistance and cooperation committee at a closed-door meeting here.

"People and countries are innocent until proven guilty," he said in comments, a recording of which were obtained by AFP. "And we continue to act on that basis."

The Egyptian-born diplomat was addressing the first day of a three-day meeting by the technical committee where it was scheduled to discuss a long list of requests for assistance in various nuclear projects.

Among the projects was an application from Syria for IAEA help in "conducting a technical and economic feasibility study and site selection for a nuclear power plant."

The request has ruffled feathers within the IAEA, particularly among western diplomats who say Damascus must first address allegations of past illicit nuclear work.

Requests have been filed for a total 629 projects between 2009-2011, IAEA deputy director general Ana Maria Cetto told the committee on the first day of its annual meeting.

The projects can range from anything from the development of therapeutic radio-pharmaceuticals to isotope hydrology or helping countries look at nuclear energy.

Western diplomats said, however, that it would be "highly inappropriate" for the IAEA to approve such a project until Syria had cleared up allegations that it had been building an undeclared nuclear reactor at a remote desert site until the building was razed to the ground by Israeli planes last year.

The UN watchdog has launched an investigation into the allegations and last week issued its first report on the matter, finding that the site -- called Al-Kibar -- did indeed appear to share some of the characteristics of a nuclear reactor and that traces of uranium had been found there.

"We have a real problem with this project," one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In a joint statement delivered by France, the European Union called "vigilance" when it came to technical cooperation projects with countries under IAEA investigation.

"Noting the (IAEA) secretariat's assertion that it had respected the evaluation procedures, the European Union believes that it would have nevertheless been preferable to postpone this project ... in order to give the country concerned time to respond to all the IAEA's questions and ensure that all of the agency's 'milestones' are adhered to," the EU statement said.

Syria has repeatedly denied US claims that Al-Kibar was a covert nuclear reactor, built with North Korean help and close to becoming operational.

ElBaradei said there were three specific cases when a member country's rights could be curtailed in some way.

"There is a case of non-compliance ... when the board has the authority to suspend technical cooperation." That was the case with North Korea in 1994, he said.

Another case was "when there is a persistent violation of the statute." Here, the board had the authority to recommend to the general conference to suspend cooperation, as was the case with Israel in 1981.

The third category was when the UN Security Council had issued a resolution against the country concerned, as happened with Iraq in 1991 and Iran in 2006, ElBaradei said.

Just because a country was being investigated, it did not mean that it was guilty, the IAEA chief insisted.

"We have to be very careful when we talk about investigation. There is one thing called claims and investigations and another thing called clear-cut proof of innocence or guilt," he said.

Speaking on behalf of non-aligned countries, Cuban ambassador Norma Goicochea Estenoz also argued that there was no legal basis for the IAEA to deny Syria help in the project.

"Technical cooperation programmes to any member states should not be blocked, delayed or otherwise hindered for mere suspicion or unproven allegations," she said.

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