IAEA's Syrian Contact Assassinated, Stalling Nuclear Probe

| Thu Sep. 25, 2008 5:44 PM EDT

At a closed door meeting in Vienna today, UN International Atomic Energy Agency director general Mohamed ElBaradei revealed that the reason the group's investigation into whether Syria was pursuing a nuclear program has been delayed is that its main Syrian contact has turned up assassinated.

"The reason that Syria has been late in providing additional information (is) that our interlocutor has been assassinated in Syria," ElBaradei told a closed-door session of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member board. A recording of his remarks was obtained by AFP.

ElBaradei apparently did not provide any details on the circumstances of the murder of the group's liaison, nor on his identity. But the AFP cites various Arab media reports noting the assassination of Brig. Gen. Mohammed Sleiman (or Mohamed Suleiman) in the northern port town of Tartus in early August, describing him as a military advisor to Syrian president Bashar al Assad and Syria's liaison to Hezbollah. The LAT says intelligence experts have long suspected Suleiman was in charge of Syria's alleged nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

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ElBaradei has apparently been pushed by some dozen IAEA members, including the US, to complete his report on the Syria investigation by November. He insisted to the closed door meeting today that he was not being evasive.

"We have not provided a report and we will provide a report as and when we have enough facts assessment to provide a report," he said. "Our decision on the report will be based, not on politics, but on when we are ready with assessment and facting. ...I'm just telling you how difficult, how complex the situation has become, particularly after the evidence has been eliminated and if we were not to find nuclear material."

"We are in a very awkward situation, because the corpse has gone, and we are now at a stage when we have to reconstruct a facility that is not there," ElBaradei concluded, referring apparently not to the corpse of the group's Syrian liaison, but the corpse of the building struck last September by the Israeli Air Force, in a hush-hush operation dubbed Operation Orchard.

It's not hard to understand why ElBaradei, who has been a target of US hardliners' wrath for his insistence that the absence of evidence does not necessarily prove that various rogue regimes are hiding banned weapons programs, recently announced that he plans to retire when his IAEA term is up in November.

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