1. North Korea Praised for Cooperation in Inspection of Yongbyon Atomic Site
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The U.S. ambassador in Seoul praised North Korea on Thursday for opening its main nuclear complex to a U.S.-led team of experts, saying he hopes the rare move means the regime has its mind set on giving up atomic weapons.
The three-nation team of atomic specialists from the United States, China and Russia toured the North's main Yongbyon nuclear complex Wednesday, 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, north of the capital Pyongyang, and saw "everything they asked to see," the U.S. State Department said.
Their mission was to survey Yongbyon's nuclear facilities to determine how to disable them so they cannot produce more bombs, part of an agreement reached between U.S. and North Korean envoys earlier this month.
The group was scheduled to continue its survey Thursday at Yongbyon and return to Pyongyang Friday for talks with North Korean officials.
The North's invitation of the delegation and its cooperation were the latest in what was seen as a series of signs that the regime is serious about disarming under a February disarmament-for-aid deal with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, welcomed the trip, saying Thursday that it would "facilitate tangible progress" on disabling the Yongbyon facilities by year's end as the North has promised.
"We hope it means that the North Korean leadership is making the strategic decision to denuclearize and join the international community," Vershbow told a security forum in Seoul. "All eyes are on the North Korean leadership's next steps."
Buoyed by progress in the disarmament process, the envoy even suggested Wednesday that President George W. Bush and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il could hold a summit if North Korea totally disarmed.
Such a meeting would mark the completion of a turnaround from Bush's previous hard-line stance toward North Korea, which he once branded part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Saddam Hussein-ruled Iraq.
After North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in October, the United States softened its policy to facilitate progress on the North's disarmament.
In July, North Korea shut down its sole operating reactor at Yongbyon, which produced plutonium for bombs. The site includes facilities for reprocessing nuclear fuel from the reactor, and the country also has two long-dormant construction sites nearby for larger power-generating reactors.
1. Officials Say Israel Raid on Syria Triggered by Arms Fears
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A mysterious Israeli air raid in Syria may have been triggered by suspicions Damascus is building nuclear arms, to test new Syrian air defences or to stop Iranian weapons reaching Hezbollah, U.S. and Western officials say.
Amid widespread media speculation and a blanket silence from the Israeli and U.S. governments, however, nothing is certain.
Recalling the failure of U.S. forces to find much evidence of Iraqi secret weapons whose alleged development was part of the justification for the 2003 invasion, some analysts caution that there seems little evidence for suspicions against Syria.
An Israeli government spokesman again on Wednesday declined all comment on the incident, over which Syria has complained to the United Nations saying Israeli aircraft "dropped munitions".
The U.S. government, for which Syria forms part of a hostile alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, has also declined to comment.
Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday called the episode "spilt milk" but gave no details of what actually did happen and insisted that Israel still wanted peace with Syria.
But Israeli public radio stations, which like all media in the country are under military censorship, led Wednesday's bulletins with a New York Times report that U.S. officials said Israel did carry out an air strike on September 6 and that U.S. officials believed Syria may have obtained nuclear material.
Israeli newspapers gave prominent coverage to a CNN report quoting U.S. sources saying that Israeli aircraft and possibly ground troops struck Iranian arms bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, with which Israel fought a war last year.
One U.S. diplomatic source told Reuters that Deir az-Zor, the northeastern area where Syria said the Israeli bombs caused no damage, was suspected by U.S. officials of being the focus of some form of cooperation on nuclear weapons with North Korea.
"The suspicion is that North Korea is outsourcing uranium enrichment to Damascus," the diplomatic source said.
However, another U.S. official and former U.S. intelligence officials said this seemed unlikely and technically difficult.
The New York Times quoted an unnamed Pentagon official saying Israeli jets struck at least one target in northeastern Syria but adding that it was not clear what was hit.
One U.S. official source told Reuters there was some concern in Washington that North Korea had hidden uranium enrichment facilities abroad. But the source added that it seemed unlikely Pyongyang would risk derailing a deal with the United States to end its nuclear arms programme by sending material to Syria.
In Vienna, two senior diplomats familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency said they knew of no serious suspicions of nuclear links between Syria and North Korea.
The New York Times quoted U.S. officials saying Israel's most likely targets in Syria were Iranian arms for Hezbollah, against whom Israel fought a month-long war last year.
The paper also quoted one U.S. official saying Israel believed that North Korea was selling Syria nuclear material.
One former U.S. intelligence official who still follows the Middle East closely said he believed previous comments from Western diplomats in Damascus that last week's incident centred on an attempt by Israel to test whether Syria's air defences had been improved since purchases of new equipment from Russia.
The former official said he doubted Syria had significant secret weapons. Another former U.S. intelligence official said he was not aware of serious suspicions in Washington that Syria had a nuclear programme of any kind.
1. India's Left Issues Blunt Threat Over Nuclear Deal
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Indian communists said on Thursday they would stop supporting the government if it pursued a nuclear deal with the United States, their most blunt threat in a month-old political crisis that has shaken the coalition.
The comments by Prakash Karat, head of the largest of the four left parties that shore up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, made it more likely that Singh's government would not last its entire five-year term, analysts said.
With Singh unlikely to back down over the nuclear deal, he may have to choose between continuing in power as head of a minority government or calling elections before his term ends in May 2009.
"We won't be there to help this government conclude this agreement," said Prakash Karat, the chief of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M). "That's final."
The communists, who have 60 MPs in the 545-member lower house of parliament, had in the past warned the government of "serious consequences" if it went ahead with the deal, without spelling out what those consequences could be.
The pact -- seen as a sign of booming economic and strategic ties between the two powerful democracies -- allows India to import U.S. nuclear fuel and reactors, despite having tested nuclear weapons and not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The left says the deal undermines India's independent foreign policy and draws New Delhi into a strategic alliance with Washington.
In order to get the pact working on the ground, New Delhi needs to conclude India-specific safeguards for its civilian reactors with the International Atomic Energy Agency and also get the backing of the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations.
Besides, the U.S. Congress also needs to approve it again.
Karat said the government must not go ahead with talks with the IAEA if it wants the communists to continue support.
"Don't go. Wait for some time. Listen to our objections. Examine these objections. Let parliament opine on it," he told a seminar on the deal. "But they have not so far agreed.
"This is not a normal matter of differences between us. The question is, why this determination to go ahead despite the fact that the main parties on which the government depends on for its majority say no."
The government and communists have set up a panel meant to resolve differences over the deal, but Karat's comments show that finding common ground will be extremely difficult.
"Each side is playing its cards in the expectation that the other would not press the matter to the point of an immediate election," political analyst Pran Chopra said.
But with the left intensifying pressure, the government was unlikely to last its full term, he said.
"I think there will be elections after the budget," Chopra said. The annual budget is presented to parliament on February 28.
1. 'Trafficking, Theft of N-Material a Persistent Problem'
Press Trust of India
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Illicit trafficking, theft and loss of nuclear and other radioactive materials remain "a persistent problem," says the United Nations agency entrusted with pre-empting nuclear and radiological terrorism and preventing proliferation.
More than 250 incidents involving unauthorized possession and related criminal activities, theft or loss of nuclear or other radioactive materials, and unauthorized disposal were reported to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) last year, of which 150 occurred last year and the rest mainly in 2005.
"Information reported to the ITDB shows a persistent problem with the illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, thefts, losses, and other unauthorized activities," the latest ITDB report says.
Of the 150 incidents that occurred last year, 14 involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activities and can be described as illicit trafficking, containing such factors as illegal possession, movement, or attempts to illegally trade in the materials.
The majority of these incidents involved sealed radioactive sources and the materials included natural uranium, depleted uranium, and thorium. Thefts of such materials are of particular concern since they can be upstream evidence of illicit trafficking and are indicators of vulnerabilities in control and security systems.
In about 73 per cent of cases, the lost or stolen materials have not been reportedly recovered. "Uncontrolled nuclear and other radioactive materials also are evidence of weaknesses in control and security measures. These could be exploited by those with a malicious intent."
In January, Georgia reported to the ITDB an incident that occurred in February 2006 and involved the seizure of 79.5 grammes of 89 per cent-enriched uranium.
Another 85 incidents in 2006 involved thefts, losses or misrouting of nuclear or other radioactive materials.
Eight of these incidents involved high-risk "dangerous" radioactive sources that are classified as Category 2 and 3.
As of December 31, last year, the ITDB contained 1,080 confirmed incidents reported by participating States since 1993, of which 275 involved unauthorized possession and related criminal activity, 332 involved theft or loss and 398 other unauthorized activities.
Past incidents of illicit trafficking involved seizures of kilogramme quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material, but most have involved very small quantities, the report said.
"In some of these cases, there is a possibility that seized material was a sample of larger quantities available for illegal purchase or at risk of theft. If so, these materials pose a continuous potential security threat," it added.
"Where information on motives is available, it indicates that profit seeking is the principal motive behind such events. Some cases, however, showed an indication of malicious intent."
Currently, 96 States participate in the ITDB Programme. In some cases, non-participating Member States have provided information.
1. Developing States Rap "Interference" in Iran Deal
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Non-aligned nations on Tuesday rejected "interference" in Iran's nuclear transparency deal with U.N. inspectors, countering Western criticism the pact eases pressure on Tehran not to seek technology with bomb potential.
The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of developing nations, which includes Iran itself, endorsed the deal at a gathering of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 35-nation board of governors.
The August 21 "work plan" commits Iran to answer five-year-old IAEA questions one by one over a rough timeline of a few months, while leaving untouched Tehran's expanding enrichment work.
The United States and its major European allies said the deal diverted attention from U.N. Security Council demands that Iran suspend uranium enrichment and grant broader inspections to defuse mistrust over its nuclear intentions.
The West fears Iran wants to make nuclear bombs while Tehran insists its program is aimed solely at electricity production.
A European Union statement to the board focused on demanding Iran comply with Security Council resolutions and suggested that its pledge to answer questions about past, hidden nuclear work, while welcome, was worth little unless Tehran honored it.
The EU "took note" of the "work plan", which in diplomatic terms means reserving judgment, short of approval. IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei walked out of the meeting after the EU statement, said several diplomats who were present.
"The EU statement was short-sighted..., overly hardline and not helpful," said a Vienna diplomat working on the Iran file. "It's harmful for the IAEA as an institution."
Ambassador Norma Goicochea Estenoz of Cuba, speaking as current chairman of NAM, said it "strongly rejects any undue pressure or interference in the agency's activities ... which could jeopardize its efficiency and credibility".
She was alluding to suggestions by Washington and some allies that Iran bulldozed inspectors into a flawed deal.
The United Nations has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt nuclear fuel work. Iran's agreement with the IAEA has delayed a fresh set of tougher sanctions meant to deter Tehran from pursuing enrichment.
"NAM believes this work plan is a significant step forward, as (ElBaradei) said himself," Goicochea said. "NAM believes it will facilitate negotiations between Iran and other concerned parties toward a peaceful settlement of Iran's nuclear issues."
"NAM also expects all concerned parties to avoid taking any measures which put at risk the recent constructive process between Iran and the Agency," she said.
There are 115 nations in the NAM, 15 of them on the IAEA's board, which makes decisions based on consensus.
Iran has few staunch allies in NAM -- Cuba, Syria, Bolivia and Venezuela, all foes of Washington. Many members are disenchanted with Iranian intransigence, diplomats say.
But many also resent what they see as efforts by some Western powers on the board to isolate rather than negotiate with Iran to head off a slide into conflict.
Ambassador Joachim Duarte of Portugal, current chairman of the EU, said the bloc appreciated "impartial efforts" by the IAEA to uncover Iran's nuclear history, but also called for regular status reports to board governors.
Some Western diplomats have suggested IAEA inspectors should have consulted governors before sealing the deal.
Duarte said the EU remained open to negotiations on trade benefits for Iran if it shelved enrichment activity first. Iran has rejected that precondition as undermining its sovereignty.
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