IAEA, Indian nuclear chiefs meet on safeguards accord

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VIENNA, Nov 21 (Reuters) India's nuclear energy chief met the International Atomic Energy Agency director today in a step expected to lead to talks to put Indian reactors under IAEA safeguards after domestic opposition to the deal eased.

In order to launch a nuclear supply deal with the United States, India must submit its declared civilian atomic reactors to regular IAEA monitoring and then win the approval of a multilateral group controlling sensitive nuclear trade.

After months of resistance over fears the deal would weaken India's sovereignty, the communist allies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government relented last week and said moves to seal the accord could be pursued on certain conditions.

Indian Department of Atomic Energy chief Anil Kakodkar made no comment to reporters after the half-hour meeting with Mohamed ElBaradei in the IAEA director's office in Vienna. The UN watchdog agency also had no immediate comment.

Diplomats said the meeting should pave the way for technical negotiations to set up inspections at Indian reactors to ensure they are used to produce peaceful energy only.

A UN official said the negotiations would take some weeks.

ElBaradei visited India in October but formal discussions on a safeguards pact did not start because of the communists' opposition.

It was earlier thought the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors might approve an India safeguards accord at its regular year-end meeting to be held tomorrow and Friday. But extended political wrangling in India dashed that prospect.

RACE AGAINST TIME US and Indian officials are anxious to get the 2005 deal ratified before the United States plunges into its campaign for November 2008 elections, which could sideline it indefinitely.

The India-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement aims to reverse a three-decade ban on Indian access to US atomic materials. Washington says it highlights a new strategic partnership that will promote international stability.

Disarmament advocates dislike the deal as New Delhi never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has tested atomic bombs.

They, like critics in the US Congress, say the deal unfairly rewards India and undercuts a US-led campaign to curtail the nuclear ambitions of nations like Iran, an NPT member that denies it is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons.

Communists who shore up Singh's coalition objected on the grounds that the pact would enable Washington to dominate India's non-aligned foreign policy, and threatened to withdraw support if the deal went ahead.

On Friday, they relented after weeks of negotiations with government leaders and said the deal could proceed.

The pact will also require the consensus approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group before ratification by the US Congress. The 45-nation group discussed it last week but reached no conclusion since there was no India-IAEA deal yet.

REUTERS RJ AS1744

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