New satellite photos taken Wednesday show that Syria apparently cleaned up the site of a suspected nuclear reactor after it was bombed by Israeli aircraft last month.
The imagery, taken by Digital Globe, a private satellite imagery company, shows a cleared area where two months before the suspect facility stood. The boxy building is located at the end of a dirt road just off the Euphrates River. The site is about 100 miles from the Iraqi border near the town of At Tibnah in northeastern Syria.
Although reports indicated the the reactor had been in the early stages of construction, an earlier satellite photo, taken by another commercial imaging company, GeoEye, raised questions about those assertions. The imagery, taken on September 16, 2003, four year prior to the attack, shows the facility looking just as it did prior to the attack The only difference is the addition of a pumping station on the Euphrates River near the facility. Some U.S. officials have suggested the reactor was based on a North Korean design. The North has agreed to denuclearize, and if it was shown that it had helped Syria, that would complicate further relations with the United States.
David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said the satellite imagery "effectively confirms that this site was indeed the target of the Israeli raid." Albright's group did its own analysis of the imagery.
Beyond the suspected reactor, the imagery also shows the pumping station on the Euphrates, which does not appear to have been bombed or cleaned up. The "before" picture was taken Aug. 10, the "after" on Oct. 24 (Wednesday). The raid, which Syria has confirmed but which Israel and the U.S. have officially declined to discuss, took place Sept. 6.
U.S. officials have said on background that following the Israeli attack, Syria bulldozed the debris from the site, apparently to avoid having the facility's purpose exposed. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said it was studying satellite photos to determine if it should investigate Syria's nuclear activities and Israel's raid. The Syrian foreign ministry on Wednesday denied the facility was a reactor.
NBC News has learned that the Israelis used four F-16's in the attack, two acting as fighter bombers, two as jammers. The two bombers dropped six precision-guided thousand-pound bombs on the site. The site was believed to be in the early stages of construction and to not yet have been outfitted.
"Dismantling and removing the building at such a rapid pace dramatically complicates any inspection of the facilities and suggests that Syria may be trying to hide what was there," added Albright. "Iraq followed a similar strategy in 1991 after the first Gulf War, though eventually the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.N. inspectors pieced together a full picture of Iraq's activities."
Albright said tractors or bulldozers can be seen in the Oct. 24 imagery where the suspected reactor building once stood. Scrape marks can be seen around the razed part of the site as well.
"There also appears to be a trench in the Oct. 24, 2007, imagery that is better defined than in the Aug. 10, 2007, imagery," said Albright, a former IAEA inspector in Iraq. "This trench may be more visible as a result of the Syrians’ digging up buried pipelines running from the pump station to the now-gone suspected reactor construction building. Because of a more prominent shadow in the Oct. 24, 2007, imagery, there appears to be evidence of an underground portion of the suspect reactor building."
Asked for a comment on whether its imagery matches Digital Globe's, a spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency said, "Sorry, we can't help you on that."
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