VIENNA – The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Thursday angrily rejected Israeli accusations of bias in a probe by his agency into allegations of a secret Syrian atomic site, calling Israel's position totally distorted.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been examining U.S. intelligence reports saying Syria almost completed a reactor that could have yielded plutonium for atom bombs, before Israel bombed it to pieces in 2007.
IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei has chided Syria for withholding documentation and access for inspectors seeking to clarify the allegations. But he has also rebuked Israel for not alerting the U.N. watchdog before destroying the site, complicating the search to establish the truth.
Tensions boiled at a meeting of the IAEA's governing body when Israel's envoy accused ElBaradei of making redundant demands and showing bias by making repeated calls on Israel to provide more evidence.
Israel's delegate said it had answered the only relevant IAEA question posed to it, by stating that uranium traces found later at the alleged reactor site did not come from Israeli munitions used to bomb it -- a position largely accepted by agency investigators.
Therefore the repeated call by the director general on Israel to cooperate with this investigation is redundant, Ambassador Israel Michaeli told the 35-nation governing board during a debate on the Syria issue.
Had the director-general wished for further information from Israel, he would have not refused to meet with Israeli officials, and (would have) refrained from publicly lashing at Israel.
Israel calls on (ElBaradei) to avoid political bias in dealing with the Syrian file, Michaeli concluded.
ElBaradei, in a caustic rebuttal unusual in the diplomatic body, called Michaeli's statement totally distorted.
He recalled international criticism of Israel's 1981 air attack on Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor as a clear violation of international law, and said its September 2007 raid on the Syrian site fell into the same category.
Looking straight at Michaeli, ElBaradei told him that Israel's air strike had prevented the IAEA from carrying out its duty to verify reports of illicit nuclear weapons activity.
You, sir, did not allow us to do what we are supposed to do under international law, he said. You are not even part of the (non-proliferation) regime to tell us what to do. We would appreciate that you stop preaching to us, ElBaradei went on.
Israel is one of only three countries outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is believed to have an undeclared nuclear arsenal, the only one in the Middle East.
Syria, for decades in a technical state of war with Israel, denies having tried to build a weapons-oriented nuclear reactor with North Korean help. It says Israel's target was an ordinary military building and the U.S. intelligence was forged.
ElBaradei said the full extent of Israel's response to IAEA requests to account for the uranium traces found at the Syrian site was: It could not have come from us. He said that response was almost an insult to the agency.
I'll not dignify (the charge) that we're biased, said the Egyptian, who will step down as head of the IAEA later this year after completing three terms of office.
ElBaradei has suggested Israel's nuclear might has contributed to Middle East instability by spurring others, like Iran, Israel's arch-enemy, to seek nuclear weapons capability.
He and Arab states often call for a regional nuclear arms-free zone. Israel has said the idea is noble but must await a lasting overall agreement with Arab and Islamic foes recognizing its right to exist in peace and security.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)