Sunday, 20 May 2007

India, US still engaged on nuclear deal

NEW DELHI: India remains engaged in serious talks with the United States over a nuclear cooperation deal, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, even though a senior US official in the negotiations has put off a visit.

"We are in serious negotiations with the USA," Singh told reporters after a ceremony to swear in a cabinet minister, when asked if he was worried that the much touted deal, first announced in July 2005, could still fall through.

The civil nuclear pact has hit serious obstacles. Critics, including lawmakers in both countries, complain their side has given too much and gotten too little in return.

Asked whether he was still optimistic about the deal, Singh said he was "hopeful" differences would be sorted out.

US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was expected in New Delhi in the second half of May to iron out serious differences over the deal that would give India access to US nuclear fuel and reactors for the first time in 30 years.

But on Wednesday, the US State Department said that while Burns could still visit India, "he's got nothing scheduled for now".

Adding to the uncertainty, India's foreign ministry said on Thursday no date had been finalised for the Burns visit.

Doubts about his trip has cooled enthusiasm about a possible breakthrough in negotiations, hailed as a strong foundation for booming economic and strategic ties between the world's most populous democracies.

The two sides have been unable to agree on a formal bilateral cooperation agreement, which is supposed to implement a political deal struck in 2005.

One key sticking point is that the Indians have objected to a provision asserting the United States has the legal mandate to halt nuclear cooperation if India - already armed with atomic weapons - tests a nuclear device.

Another is the US refusal to give New Delhi blanket approval for reprocessing spent fuel with American components.

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