US Def Secy meets Pranab; To pitch for Defence deal during visit

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New Delhi, Feb 26 (UNI) Indo-US defence ties are set for a major boost with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrival here today and his discussions with Indian leaders, pitching for a 10.2 Billion Dollar deal for fighter aircraft.

Mr Gates arrived this afternoon from Indonesia on a two-day visit, his first to India since assuming office on December 18, 2006. The visit takes place in the last of the George W Bush eight-year Presidency that witnessed unprecedented acceleration in India-US engagement and qualitative transformation in the relationship, particularly in Defence.

The US Defence Secretary met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and discussed various aspects of bilateral relations.

Mr Gates is scheduled to meet Defence Minister A K Antony and Leader of Opposition L K Advani tomorrow. He will also meet National Security Advisor (NSA) M K Narayanan.

He is likely to discuss the issue of civilian nuclear agreement with Mr Advani, urging him to give up the opposisition to the deal.

The BJP has opposed the deal in and outside Parliament.

Mr Gates is on a week-long tour of Australia, Indonesia, India and Turkey.

The two countries which witnessed intensive engagement during the past two years over the Civilian Nuclear Agreement, are now headed for closer Defence ties, which are increasingly being looked at from the perspective of growing Chinese might and political instability in Pakistan.

India has agreed to buy six Lockheed Martin military transport planes worth about one billion Dollars. It now wants to buy 126 multi-role fighter jets for which the US companies are competing with those from other major countries including France, Sweden, Russia and a consortium of German, British, Spanish and Italian companies.

The bids close on March three.

An official spokesman said India and the US have a strong framework of defence cooperation established by the 2005 Defence Framework Agreement and a comprehensive institutional framework of exchanges.

''Secretary Gates' visit will give a further impetus to the ongoing Defence cooperation between our two countries. His visit reaffirms the importance of the Indo-US relations and the strong political support in the US for our strategic partnership. India also reiterates its interest in looking forward to broad-based defence ties with the US,'' the spokesman added.

UNI RB AKJ ND1828

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