By WILLIAM J. BROAD and MARK MAZZETTI
New commercial satellite photos show that a Syrian site believed to have been attacked by Israel last month no longer bears any obvious traces of what some analysts said appeared to have been a partly built nuclear reactor.
Two photos, taken Wednesday from space by rival companies, show the site near the Euphrates River to have been wiped clean since August, when imagery showed a tall square building there measuring about 150 feet on a side.
The Syrians reported an attack by Israel in early September; the Israelis have not confirmed that. Senior Syrian officials continue to deny that a nuclear reactor was under construction, insisting that Israel hit a largely empty military warehouse.
But the images, federal and private analysts say, suggest that the Syrian authorities rushed to dismantle the facility after the strike, calling it a tacit admission of guilt.
“It’s a magic act — here today, gone tomorrow,” said a senior intelligence official. “It doesn’t lower suspicions, it raises them. This was not a long-term decommissioning of a building, which can take a year. It was speedy. It’s incredible that they could have gone to that effort to make something go away.”
Any attempt by Syrian authorities to clean up the site would make it difficult, if not impossible, for international weapons inspectors to determine that exact nature of the activity there. Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna have said they hoped to analyze the satellite images and ultimately inspect the site in person. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that released a report on the Syrian site earlier this week, said the expurgation of the building was inherently suspicious.
“It looks like Syria is trying to hide something and destroy the evidence of some activity,” Mr. Albright said in an interview. “But it won’t work. Syria has got to answer questions about what it was doing.”
The striking difference in the satellite photos surprised even some outside experts who were skeptical that Syria might be developing a nuclear program.
“It’s clearly very suspicious,” said Joseph Cirincione, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The Syrians were up to something that they clearly didn’t want the world to know about.”
Mr. Cirincione said the photographic evidence “tilts toward a nuclear program,” but does not prove that Syria was building a reactor. Besides, he said, even if it was developing a nuclear program, Syria would be l years away from being operational, and thus not an imminent threat.
Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on the satellite pictures.
The satellite images of the Syrian site were taken by DigitalGlobe, in Longmont, Colo., and SPOT Image Corporation, in Chantilly, Va. They show just a smooth, unfurrowed area where the large building once stood.
The desolate Syrian site is located on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River some 90 miles north of the Iraqi border and seven miles north of the desert village of At Tibnah. An airfield lies nearby. The new images reveal that the tall building is gone but still show a secondary structure and a pumping station on the Euphrates. Reactors need water for cooling.
The purported reactor at the site is believed to be modeled on a North Korean model, which uses buildings a few feet longer on each side than the Syrian building that vanished.
Mr. Albright called the Syrian site “consistent with being a North Korean reactor design.” Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, said in an interview last week with The Dallas Morning News denied that his country was trying to build a reactor.
“There is no Syrian nuclear program whatsoever,” he said. “It’s an absolutely blatant lie.”
Later in the interview, he said, “ We understand that if Syria even contemplated nuclear technology, then the gates of hell would open on us.”