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Syria Seen Copying Iran Cover-Up Tactics

VIENNA (Reuters) -- The United States accused Syria on November 28 of adopting tactics "honed by Iran" to impede a UN watchdog probe into alleged covert nuclear activity.

A November 19 International Atomic Energy Agency report said a Syrian building bombed to rubble by Israel in 2007 had markings resembling those of a nuclear reactor. Traces of uranium, or nuclear fuel, were found by inspectors at the site in June.

The IAEA's director urged Syria on November 27 to open up military sites to his inspectors to help them draw conclusions about U.S. intelligence pointing to a reactor almost built with North Korean help and designed to make plutonium for atom bombs.

But UN officials said the hunt for evidence was handicapped by a long delay in intelligence-sharing with the IAEA, months after Syria razed and swept the bombed site clean, and lack of a legal mandate to search wherever they wanted.

Syria has dismissed the intelligence as fabrications and ruled out more inspection visits on national security grounds.

"So far Syria seems to be testing the tactics of hindrance and unhelpfulness that Iran has so finely honed," U.S. Ambassador Gregory Schulte said in a debate among the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors.

Iran has impeded a longer-running IAEA probe into intelligence material that Washington says shows Tehran illicitly studied how to design atom bombs. Iran denies this but has not provided back-up evidence, the IAEA says.

"The IAEA needs to understand what Syria was building in secret and then buried under metres of earth and a new building, and to demonstrate that illicit nuclear activities, whether in Syria or elsewhere, will be caught and investigated," Schulte said.

But he said the case underlined the IAEA's limitations in a country that has not ratified the Additional Protocol, a crucial tool in detecting clandestine nuclear activity since it permits short-notice inspections beyond declared nuclear sites.

"Syria is one state that declined to adopt the protocol. Perhaps we now understand why," said Schulte.

Schulte and French envoy Francois-Xavier Deniaud, speaking for the European Union, urged Syria to embrace the protocol to help rebuild confidence in its intentions.

But Syria has ruled this out for reasons of national security as long as Israel refuses to do so as well as join the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, the only one in the Middle East.

Deniaud called the IAEA's initial findings "troubling" and urged Syria to "cooperate without reservations" with the IAEA.