24 hours after agreement, Russia backs off on Syrian nuke plant

Special to World
Thursday, January 16, 2003

MOSCOW Russia, under Israeli and U.S. pressure, appears to have reversed itself on plans to build a nuclear power plant in Syria.

Russian officials stressed that Damascus and Moscow have agreed in principle to explore the proposal for a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power facility in Syria. But the officials added that no deal has been concluded and that Syria does not seem to have the money for the facility.

On Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on its website that a nuclear power facility deal had been concluded with Syria. The ministry said the agreement paved the way for the start of construction.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko had gone further and said Moscow plans to help construct two nuclear facilities in Syria. One would be a nuclear power plant and the other a nuclear-powered desalination plant. The projects were estimated at costing $2 billion.

But Moscow changed its tone over the last 24 hours and officials said the Foreign Ministry announcement was mistaken. Nicolai Shingrab, a senior adviser at the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry said Syria cannot afford the $1 billion price tag for the reactor.

Russia has offered several Middle East clients a 1,000-megawatt light water nuclear facility. Moscow has already sold such a power plant to Iran and has been discussing the issue with Egypt and Libya.

Officials said Russia plans to build up to 10 nuclear plants in the Middle East. Egypt has discussed a plan with Russia to construct eight nuclear facilities.

Western diplomatic sources said Moscow's back-tracking from a nuclear accord with Russia came in wake of Israeli and U.S. protests. The sources said several senior Israeli ministers, including Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Housing Minister Natan Sharansky, called the Russian government to warn against Moscow's nuclear or weapons sales to Syria.

The Moscow-based Itar-Tass news agency said the nuclear reactor issue was discussed during the current visit by Syrian President Abdul Halim Khaddam to Moscow. Officials said Khaddam was also discussing Syrian military purchases, such as the S-300 anti-aircraft system and the SA-18 Igla surface-to-air missile.

Trade between the two countries was reported at $163 million 2001. Russia exported $95 million to Syria. Before 1992, annual trade was reported at nearly $1 billion.

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