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July 20, 1998


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India, US on verge of breakthrough

India and the United States appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough in their ongoing dialogue on security, disarmament and non-proliferation matters as a ''clearer understanding of each other's concerns'' emerged at the third round of official talks between the two countries.

An official statement issued after US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said ''certain steps in the direction of addressing those concerns are contemplated''.

However, the statement said some ground remained to be covered and it had been agreed that another round of talks would be held in Washington in the second half of August between Talbott and the prime minister's special envoy, Jaswant Singh.

Talbott handed over a letter to Vajpayee from US President Bill Clinton. The prime minister indicated that he would soon send a reply and asked Talbott to convey to Clinton India's desire to put relations with the US back on an even keel.''

Emerging from his 70-minute meeting with the prime minister, Talbott told waiting reporters that the discussions included ''tough issues for both India and the US.'' However, he declined to disclose any point of substance, saying the whole exercise was one of ''quiet diplomacy'' as the Indian media had already characterised these talks.

He, however, appreciated the ''constructive attitude'' of the Indian side through the talks.''The talks are not conclusive....We have quite a long way to go'', the US official said.

At Talbott's meeting with the prime minister, Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs Vasundhara Raje, Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, Foreign Secretary K Raghunath and senior officials were present. Talbott was accompanied by US Ambassador to India Richard Celeste besides members of his delegation.

Earlier, emerging from his day-long talks with Jaswant Singh, Talbott told reporters at Hyderabad House that the talks were ''constructive and ongoing'', and the next round would be held in the second half of August in Washington.

An official statement issued by the external affairs ministry after the talks said the two sides exchanged strategic perspectives on regional and international development''. The MEA said, ''The discussions were marked by a spirit of working together to find common ground and to narrow gaps in their respective perceptions.''

Official sources said Singh and Talbott, who have been appointed as the main interlocutors for the Indo-US dialogue by their two governments, held delegation-level talks, lasting three hours. This was followed by a one-to-one meeting between the two, which lasted 45 minutes.

Singh and Talbott will continue their discussions on Tuesday, before the US delegation leaves for Islamabad.

When Talbott was specifically asked which issues were taken up, he said, ''We discussed a wide range of security issues, including arms control, disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and regional and international developments.''

Asked if the US sanctions against India figured in the discussions, Talbott said the main aim of his talks with Singh was to restore Indo-US talks to the level at which they existed before New Delhi conducted its nuclear tests. He was apparently referring to the Indo-US strategic dialogue which began last year, but was discontinued after the Pokhran tests.

Asked if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was taken up, the US official said, ''all aspects were covered... In Washington, Frankfurt and here, we have established a wide canvas. We are looking forward to the later half of August.''

Probed if President Clinton's visit to India was on, he said, ''The president was looking forward to the visit before May 11, but as the White House has stated his plans are under review.''

However, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to India later this year still appears to be on the cards. Albright and Jaswant Singh are likely to meet next fortnight when both attend the ASEAN summit in Manila.

Singh said the agenda for the talks "was fixed earlier.'' ''We have continued to talk,'' was how the prime minister's emissary described the discussions.

Asked if he had drawn American attention to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, Singh did not give a direct reply, but merely said, ''We discussed a wide range of issues.''

The Indian side included Raghunath, Indian Ambassador to the US Naresh Chandra, Alok Prasad, joint secretary (Americas) at the external affairs ministry, and Rakesh Sood, joint secretary (disarmament), MEA.

The American side included Celeste, vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General Joseph Ralston, special assistant to the president Bruce Reidel, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Karl F Inderfurth, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation Robert Einhorn and special adviser for South Asia affairs Matt Daley.

Immediately after the talks, Talbott left to meet former prime minister I K Gujral at his home. Later, he met Prime Minister Vajpayee and Home Minister L K Advani. He will meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi before Tuesday's talks.

On the sidelines of the official talks, General Ralston met Defence Minister George Fernandes. Their meeting lasted 45 minutes. He also met Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and Air Chief Marshall S K Sareen and the vice-chief of the army in the morning.

MEA officials insisted that the CTBT was not discussed as a separate issue during the talks, but they stressed that it would not be fair to quantify how successful the talks were.

Amberish K Diwanji, UNI

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