Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 5 News List

ElBaradei heads to India amid nuclear pact standoff

AT AN IMPASSE On Friday, the government and its allies failed to make progress at a meeting to discuss the atomic energy deal India inked with Washington in August

AFP, NEW DELHI

UN atomic energy chief Mohamed ElBaradei will visit India next week, officials said, amid deep differences between India's ruling coalition and its communist allies over a contentious nuclear pact with the US.

ElBaradei's three-day trip beginning on Monday includes a visit to nuclear facilities near the western financial hub of Mumbai and talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, an Indian official said.

ElBaradei's visit comes as there is a bitter standoff between India's Communists and Singh's ruling Congress party over an atomic energy pact concluded with Washington in August, seen as a cornerstone of warmer Indo-US ties.

On Friday, the government and its communist allies failed to make any progress at a meeting of a panel set up to resolve the deadlock, extending a crisis that has sparked talk of elections more than a year ahead of schedule.

Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, who heads the panel, described Friday's talks as "cordial" though there was no movement on the deal, which the communists say would give the US too much influence over Indian foreign policy and curb its weapons program.

"If they proceed [with the deal], we have made it clear that we will no longer support the government," senior Marxist leader Sitaram Yechury told reporters.

The two sides agreed to resume talks on Tuesday, a day before ElBaradei meets Singh.

The row has left the prime minister facing his biggest political test since taking power in 2004.

The Left has threatened to withdraw support from the government if it takes steps to "operationalize the deal" that would include starting talks on a special pact with ElBaradei's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a specialized agency of the UN.

Officials say New Delhi must clinch the IAEA pact by early next month to meet a deadline to get the deal approved by the US Congress before it gets caught up in next year's US presidential race.

If implemented, the deal will allow energy-hungry India to buy civilian nuclear technology while possessing nuclear weapons despite not having signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A spokesman for the department of atomic energy, S.K. Malhotra, said New Delhi had yet to begin formal talks with the IAEA.

"The whole activity is at a standstill because we have no clearance [from the government]," Malhotra said.

"There are not going to be any closed-door meetings with ElBaradei," he said.

India's foreign ministry did not comment on the visit or on mounting speculation that Singh would discuss the nuclear deal with ElBaradei.

"When the prime minister meets ElBaradei, the discussions will pertain no doubt to ElBaradei's area of expertise and India's interests in that subject," said Uday Bhaskarhe, independent security analyst.

New Delhi also has to conclude an agreement with the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers' Group, which controls global nuclear commerce.

Arundhati Ghosh, a former envoy to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, said India and the IAEA "must have had some exchanges on the pact."

"The government seems determined to go ahead with the deal," Ghosh said.

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