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With Bush en route to New Delhi, all eyes on N-deal

During the trip, the US Prez is expected to hammer out a landmark pact to share civilian N-technology with India.

india Updated: Mar 01, 2006 12:41 IST

Talks on a US, India nuclear pact went down to the wire as negotiators tried to settle differences over how to separate India's tightly entwined civilian and military atomic programmes before US President George W Bush arrives on Wednesday for a visit.

The deal is touted as the cornerstone of the emerging strategic partnership between the two countries after nearly a half-century of Cold War estrangement.

But even as leaders of the two countries prepared to push for closer ties, protests against Bush were getting underway with thousands of Muslims gathering on Wednesday in central New Delhi.

More protests were planned over the next two days in New Delhi and Hyderabad, the southern city Bush visits on Friday.

Indian and US officials had hoped to seal the nuclear deal before Bush arrived, but disagreements over which of India's nuclear facilities would be put under international safeguards have held up the talks.

"We are doing very hard bargaining," Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, the country's top negotiator, told reporters, adding that the two sides had "some distance" left to cover.

"We need a certain degree of clarity on our mutual commitments," he said on Tuesday.

"We need to make sure there are no ambiguities which may create difficulties for us in the future."

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out one particularly contentious subject.

"The one thing that is absolutely necessary is that any agreement would assure that once India has decided to put a reactor under safeguard that it remain permanently under safeguard," she said.

Rice and US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley briefed reporters on Air Force One as Bush flew from Washington. He was due to arrive in India on Wednesday night.

The pact would allow the United States to provide nuclear technology and fuel desperately needed by India to feed its booming but energy-starved economy.

In return, India has pledged to separate its programmes and open the civilian ones to international inspection. The separation of India's civilian and military programmes is key to the deal because the US has only agreed to recognise India as having civilian nuclear power -- not a legitimate nuclear weapons programme.

Washington and New Delhi disagree over how many of India's 22 nuclear reactors should be placed in the civilian category.

The deal, signed in July, must be approved by a sceptical US Congress, where some members have complained it will allow India to get around the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which New Delhi hasn't signed.

Some Indian scientists have also voiced concerns the deal would undermine the country's nuclear programme, although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged on Monday not to sacrifice India's national security for the pact.

Rice said she was uncertain whether there would be an agreement during Bush's trip. If no deal results from this trip, the US would get one later, she said.

Rice said India's neighbour and nuclear rival, Pakistan, would not qualify for the same sort of nuclear treatment as New Delhi.

"Pakistan is not in the same place as India," Rice said. "I think everybody understands that."

Washington says India has an unblemished record on nuclear proliferation and has not sold its technology to any outsiders. Pakistan has acknowledged it has secretly sold nuclear technology to a number of countries.

Bush plans to spend Thursday and Friday in India before leaving on Saturday morning for Pakistan. An unannounced stop in Afghanistan also was possible.