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US, India, Claim Substantial Progress in Nuclear Talks

Senior diplomats of the United States and India Friday ended four days of closed-door negotiations in Washington on an unprecedented nuclear cooperation agreement. They reported "substantial progress" but no final agreement. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The U.S.-India talks, originally scheduled to last two days, stretched into a four-day negotiating marathon.

Though a final agreement was not announced, the two delegations said substantial progress was made on outstanding issues and that their work would now be submitted to the respective governments for final review.

President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh approved the nuclear deal in principle in July of 2005.

It calls for India, since 1998 a declared nuclear weapons state, to open its civilian nuclear facilities to international inspection in exchange for access to U.S. nuclear power plant technology and reactor fuel.

Going into the round of State Department meetings, there were a number of obstacles to an implementing accord, including Indian objections to U.S. demands that it refrain from further nuclear weapons testing and not reprocess U.S.-supplied nuclear fuel.

The chief U.S. delegate to the talks, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, told VOA late Thursday the sides had overcome many of the outstanding issues.

But Burns did not elaborate and Friday's joint statement also did not give specifics or a timetable for finishing the accord. It said the two governments "look forward" to completing remaining steps and concluding what was termed "this historic initiative."

The Washington meetings had been depicted in some press reports as a make-or-break round, and Indian officials had been quoted as saying that failure to reach agreement this week could doom the deal altogether.

However at a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said efforts to finish the accord will continue. "Certainly, I wouldn't read a lack of an announcement of an agreement today as anything indicating that we won't ultimately be able to have a deal and be able to move forward on this. It's clear that both countries have the good will necessary to do this, are willing to work with one another to achieve an agreement, and we're certainly hopeful we'll get one in the very near future," he said.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon led the Indian team joined by National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan.

During the week, the Indian team also met with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, among others, reflecting the Bush administration's high interest in completing the accord.

President Bush and key aides have framed the opening to India as one of the administration's key foreign policy achievements and a possible catalyst for further high-profile defense and commercial deals.

Elements of a nuclear accord would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress, where there is bipartisan support but also concern that cooperation with India, a non-signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, undermines efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

Indian critics meanwhile say the New Delhi government is bending to U.S. pressure in ways that could limit the country's nuclear capability.