U.N. inspectors head to Syria on nuclear hunt

U.N. nuclear sleuths looking into allegations that Syria is hiding secret atomic activities expressed hope Sunday that a fact-gathering trip to Damascus will be the start of a thorough investigation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors face a daunting task. Syrian officials are expected to place strict limits on where they go and what they see during their three-day visit.

Still, IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen spoke optimistically of the mission's chances before boarding the flight to Damascus on Sunday, saying he and his two-man mission hoped to start to “establish the facts this evening.”

Syrian authorities have placed strict constraints on media reporting on the visit and there was no official word by Sunday evening out of the Arab nation if the delegation had arrived.

Despite the low-key nature of the visit, the stakes are immense.

Damascus denies working on a secret nuclear program. But Washington hopes the U.N agency team will find evidence backing U.S. intelligence that a structure destroyed by Israeli war planes in September was a nearly completed plutonium-producing reactor.

If so, the trip could mark the start of massive atomic agency investigation similar to the five-year inquiry into Iran's activities. What's more, the investigation could draw in countries such as North Korea, which Washington says helped Damascus and Iran. Media reports also have linked Iran with Syria's nuclear efforts.

After months of delay, Syria agreed to allow the nuclear inspectors to visit the bombed Al Kibar, but not three other locations suspected of harboring secret nuclear activities.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said earlier this month that visits to sites other than Al Kibar were “not within the purview of the agreement” with the IAEA.

Before the trip, both IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and the United States urged Syria to show transparency.

“Syria was caught withholding information from the IAEA,” Gregory Schulte, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, told The Associated Press. “Now Syria must disclose the truth about Al Kibar and allow IAEA's inspectors to verify that there are no other undisclosed activities.”