Burns continues talks, US committed to nuke deal


New Delhi/Washington : As chief American interlocutor Nicholas Burns continued his talks in New Delhi for the second day Friday on taking forward the landmark India-US civilian nuclear deal, the White House asserted it was committed to the pact despite "technical issues" in the way.

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Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs who arrived here Thursday on a three-day visit, held another round of discussions Friday with Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon on the 123 agreement that will enable the resumption of nuclear commerce with India after a gap of 30 years.

Burns also met Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma Friday. He is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee before leaving Saturday for the G-8 summit.

India and the US were "working hard" on the 123 agreement but it would be "very hard" to put a timeframe on concluding their negotiations, Burns told reporters as he emerged from the meeting with Sharma.

"We're working very hard, we're working very well. It's very hard to tell…when the work will be done," he added, an indication that differences still persisted on key clauses of the 123 agreement.

"The deal is mutually advantageous. There is no question in my mind that we would continue hard work, and in good spirit we can reach a final agreement," Burns maintained.

The White House echoed Burns' remarks in a statement issued in Washington.

"…Anytime you have an agreement this big and this ambitious, you're going to run into some technical issues that make progress a little more halting than you'd like it to be. But we're still committed to its success," White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday.

"I can't give you a sense on the final timing, but the government is clearly committed to it," he said when asked whether the implementing bilateral 123 Agreement would be finalised when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush meet during the G-8 Summit in Germany next week.

Burns, who held technical level talks with officials of the external affairs ministry and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) Thursday, met Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon in the evening.

The meeting, which lasted for four hours, stretched late into the evening and included a working dinner.

On Thursday, Burns also met former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, who is the prime minister's special envoy on the nuclear deal.

Menon had visited Washington last month for talks with Burns on the 123 agreement.

Indian and US technical experts then held two-day talks in London May 21-22 during which India clarified its concepts on key issues like nuclear testing and demand for access to reprocessing technologies.

Before going in for the technical level talks Thursday, Burns had said the two countries were "nearly there" but "some hard work has to be done" before the 123 agreement could be concluded.

At the same time, he expressed confidence that the pact will be concluded and that there were a "lot of reasons to feel optimistic".

The Indian external affairs ministry is yet to react on the talks.

The talks are focusing on four key areas: reprocessing of spent fuel, the technology for reprocessing, right to continue testing and uninterrupted fuel supplies.

Officials say there are major differences between India and the US on all four issues and intensive negotiations would be required if the text of the 123 agreement is to be finalised by the time Burns leaves.

Burns' delegation includes his chief technical negotiator Richard Stratford and Ashley Tellis, a strategic expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who had played a key role in structuring and implementing the India-US civilian nuclear deal.

The Indian delegation includes S. Jaishankar, Indian high commissioner to Singapore who has been involved in the nuclear talks earlier, and top officials of the DAE.

The talks are being held against the backdrop of statements from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) that supports the government from the outside and the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that parliament should be taken into confidence before the 123 agreement is announced.

Since parliament is not in session, the opposition leadership expects to be consulted before the deal is announced.

The NDA also wants assurances on two issues: that India's strategic programme remains untouched and that India retains control over its foreign policy.

In Washington, Snow said: "We understand that the civil nuclear agreement not only is important, but it's also a template for dealing with other countries," Snow maintained.

"One of the things we think is important for people to recognize … is you've got nuclear power, which is clean, you don't have greenhouse emissions. It offers an opportunity to give people the prospect of economic growth without the kind of pollution that has caused environmental concern around the globe," he added.