JERUSALEM, March 21 (Reuters) - Israel for the first time confirmed that it bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, saying on Wednesday that the strike removed a major threat to Israel and the region and was a “message” to others.
The first public acknowledgement by Israel that its F-16 warplanes carried out the Sept. 6 2007 bombing of the partially constructed Al-Kubar facility near Deir al-Zor was made after military censors lifted a more than 10-year order that had barred Israeli officials from discussing it.
The strike had already been extensively reported on abroad, and discussed by U.S. officials.
The Israeli military released newly declassified operational footage, photographs and intelligence documents about the bombing, showing the moment that the suspected reactor was hit, an detailing the intelligence operation that led up to it.
Israeli intelligence reports concluded that the reactor had been under construction with North Korean help and was months away from activation. Reuters has been unable to immediately verify the Israeli material.
Israel’s decision to go public comes after repeated calls in recent months by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the United States and international community to take tougher action on Syria’s ally, Iran.
“The motivation of our enemies has grown in recent years, but so too the might of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces),” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Wednesday.
“Everyone in the Middle East would do well to internalize this equation,” he said.
The 5 a.m. Wednesday release of the declassified documents prompted a cascade of Israeli newspaper and television reports.
The Israeli military described in detail the events leading up to the night of Sept 5 to Sept 6, 2007, in which, it said, eight F-16 warplanes took off from the Ramon and Hatzerim air bases and flew to Deir al-Zor region, 450 km northwest of Damascus, Syria.
The operation was launched after it received intelligence indicating that “a substantial threat to Israel and the region, in the form of a nuclear reactor, was being built in Syria”.
The military declassified internal “top secret” intelligence reports, in Hebrew, some of them partly redacted.
One, dated March 30, 2007, said: “Syria has set up, within its territory, a nuclear reactor for the production of plutonium, through North Korea, which according to an (initial) worst-case assessment is liable to be activated in approximately another year. To our assessment [REDACTED] secretive and orderly [REDACTED] for achieving a nuclear weapon.”
Israeli intelligence predicted that the suspected reactor “would turn operational by the end of 2007”.
The mission to destroy the facility started at 10.30 p.m. on Sept. 5 and ended with safe return of the warplanes at 2.30 a.m. the next day, the Israeli military said.
The military said the reactor “had been totally disabled, and that the damage done was irreversible”. It decided at the time not to go public with the strike.
As it happened, the event was first made public by Syria, which, as reported by Reuters at the time, said in the early hours of Sept. 6 that Syrian air defenses had repelled an incursion by Israeli warplanes.
Syria, a signatory of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has always denied that the site was a reactor or that Damascus engaged in nuclear cooperation with North Korea.
The Israeli military announcement on Wednesday noted that the area in question, around Deir al-Zor, was captured by Islamic State after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011.
Had there been an active reactor there, the Israeli military said, it would have had “severe strategic implications on the entire Middle East as well as Israel and Syria”.
The Israeli release contains a black-and-white aerial photograph captioned “before the attack” and showing a box-like square structure amid desert dunes with smaller outlying buildings.
A series of black-and-white videos, taken above the target, shows the structure in cross-hairs. A male voice is heard counting down three seconds, a cloud of black smoke rises from the center of the structure as it explodes. Other footage appears to show the aftermath - a smoldering hole in the ground.
A clip taken from “The Air Force Control Center, headed by the Commander of the IAF, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi” shows assembled Israeli air force personnel, some of their faces pixilated, applauding as they receive an update.
In declassified and unredacted letters to Shkedi, then Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praise the operation.
Wednesday’s release came ahead of the publication of a memoir by Olmert. One of his aides told Reuters the book would contain passages about the 2007 strike in Syria.