JERUSALEM, Israel - Nearly five years after Israeli warplanes allegedly bombed a site in the Syrian desert, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that the destroyed facility was a covertly built Syrian nuclear reactor.
The Israel Air Force carried out the top-secret mission on September 6, 2007. At the time, Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials suspected that North Korea was helping Syria build the facility in the desert area of Dair Alzour and possibly others.
On Thursday, IAEA Secretary-General Yukiya Amano told reporters "the [Syrian] facility that was…destroyed by Israel was a nuclear reactor under construction."
IAEA reports have aluded to the possibility the site could have been a reactor, but Amano made the agency's first unequivocal statement.
The secretary-general made the remark during a press conference in Paris on Thursday, following a visit to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has been addressing Japan's efforts to clean up its tsunami-ravaged Fukushima nuclear facility.
In early April, IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit Syria's Homs acid purification plant, The Associated Press reported.
According to the report, the plant produces uranium concentrates -- called yellowcake -- as a byproduct. Syria claims the plant is used to produce fertilizers, but yellowcake can be further processed to produce nuclear fuel.
While the IAEA viewed the visit as a step in the right direction, U.S. officials reportedly said it wasn't enough to allay suspicions of covert nuclear activity, a claim Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has continually denied.
Shortly after the 2007 air strike, Syria leveled what was left of the structure and built over it. When Assad finally allowed an IAEA visit in June 2008, inspectors said the destroyed structure met the size and structure specifications of a nuclear reactor. Officials also found uranium and graphite particles there, heightening suspicion of nuclear activity.
AP contributed to this report.