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Australian PM hints at uranium supply

John Howard said he would be happy to discuss the issue with Manmohan.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2006 16:59 IST

The Australian prime minister met with Indian leaders on Monday after expressing his willingness to reconsider Australia's ban on uranium sales to India.

Prime Minister John Howard, who arrived on Sunday on a four-day trip to India, said Australia would not suddenly change its policy of blocking sales to countries that fail to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But he said that he would be happy to discuss the issue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during talks on Monday because New Delhi has agreed with Washington to open its civilian nuclear plants to inspection.

"We have some of the largest uranium deposits in the world and provided the rules are followed and the safeguards are met we are willing to sell. But we have to be satisfied about the safeguards," Howard told reporters in New Delhi late on Sunday.

On Monday, Australia and India are also scheduled to sign agreements on promoting trade, joint scientific research, and defence and customs cooperation, an Indian daily reported. Details were not immediately available.

Howard is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, and the leader of the Opposition LK Advani on Monday, an External Affairs Ministry statement said.

Meanwhile, Singh has reportedly said he will urge Howard to lift the ban. "We are short of uranium. We need uranium and our needs will increase in years to come," The Australian newspaper quoted him as saying.

Although second to Canada in production, Australia boasts the world's biggest uranium reserves. The Olympic Dam mine in South Australia state holds 38 per cent of the world's known uranium resources.

Last week, US President George W Bush secured a landmark nuclear energy agreement which will open most of India's reactors to international inspections and provide the nation with US nuclear technology.

Subject to US congressional approval, the United States will share its nuclear know-how and fuel with India to help power its fast-growing economy.

It represents a major shift in policy for the United States, which imposed temporary sanctions on India in 1998 after it conducted nuclear weapons tests.

Following last week's announcement, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer ruled out selling uranium to India, unless the country signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Howard, however, said he would study the deal which he said represented a "very big step forward."

"We do have a long-standing policy of only selling uranium to countries that are part of the NPT regime, but we will have a look at what the Americans have done and when we get a bit more information about that we'll further assess it," he said.

He also added that his government had a "very positive attitude toward India."

Howard is the third world leader to visit New Delhi in as many weeks, following French President Jacques Chirac and Bush, all looking to boost trade ties with one of the world's fastest growing economies.

Howard is accompanied by a 20-member business delegation, including executives from Australia's biggest banks, retailer, and mining and energy companies.

Trade between India and Australia was valued at $5.4 billion (€4.5 billion) in 2004-2005.

First Published: Mar 06, 2006 10:14 IST