NEW DELHI, Feb 23 (AFP): US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns was in talks Thursday with Indian authorities to settle sharp differences over a nuclear deal ahead of a visit by US President George W. Bush, officials said.
Burns and Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran were meeting in New Delhi to discuss the separation of India's nuclear facilities -- the contentious issue which holds the key to the historic deal, Indian officials said.
Under the proposed agreement, New Delhi will get access to long-denied advanced nuclear technology if it puts some of its reactors on a list of civilian facilities to be placed under international supervision.
But the proposed plan has run into trouble over Washington's insistence that its "fast breeder" reactor programme, which can be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, should also be on the list.
Indian scientists vehemently oppose the idea, saying it will compromise the country's strategic interests.
The scientific adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh weighed in Wednesday by saying outright India would not put the facility on the civilian list.
"Who said we are going to put the fast breeder reactors in the civilian side? We cannot and will not do so," C.N.R. Rao, Singh's scientific adviser, told the Press Trust of India.
"We will accept only whatever is good for India ... The deal cannot be forced on us. The country's interest will be protected," Rao said.
India's junior foreign minister Anand Sharma also told parliament Thursday that India would separate its facilities "voluntarily", and that the exercise would be based on the country's "national interests".
Indian media reports Thursday quoted unnamed government officials as saying that India was likely to tell Burns it would not place more than 32 facilities under safeguards compared to the 60 facilities Washington wants on the list.
New Delhi would also agree to international safeguards for its fast-breeder reactors but not before 2010, the reports said.
Burns, who arrived in New Delhi Wednesday, was also to meet junior foreign minister Sharma after his talks with Saran.
Ahead of his visit starting March 1, Bush said in Washington that the nuclear deal would take time and require patience to implement.
Bush and Singh signed the deal in July, but it still needs the approval of the US Congress and the 44-member Nuclear Suppliers Group.
More news from Washington adds: US President George W. Bush urged Pakistan Wednesday to be patient with US nuclear cooperation with India but did not commit to-or rule out-a similar arrangement with Islamabad in the future.
"This is just the beginning of a very long process," of encouraging countries with big economies to move away from fossil fuels like oil, Bush told reporters. "We are starting with India."
In a roundtable interview ahead of his trip to both countries next week, Bush put off talk of a US-Pakistan free trade agreement but said he would discuss a bilteral investment treaty during his visit.
He also declined to discuss a potential India-Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline, but stressed: "What's important is that India, Pakistan, and the United States work together to send a firm message to the Iranians that a development of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable."
US officials have been pressuring India to take a tougher stand towards Iran, which Washington accuses of developing nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic energy program.
Still, Bush said a US-India nuclear energy deal, which was still being worked out, was a critical step.
"One of the primary reasons why is that India is in need of a diversification away from fossil fuels. India is consuming a lot of fossil fuel. That is driving up the price," he said.
"And so, therefore, to the extent to which we can get these fast-growing, developing nations to use something other than fossil fuels, it's in the world's interest, and it's in Pakistan's interest, as well," he said.
The US president's comments came a week before he was to leave Washington for his first ever visit to India and Pakistan.