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Indian PM defends controversial US nuclear deal

by Staff Writers
New Delhi (AFP) Aug 13, 2007
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday defended a controversial civilian nuclear accord with the United States, saying it would not affect the nation's military programme or any plans to test atomic weapons.

The accord, which covers civil nuclear technology and seeks to bring India into the loop of global atomic commerce after a gap of three decades, was rejected almost immediately by the opposition and Singh's communist allies.

In a speech in parliament drowned out by opposition protests, Singh said New Delhi had not agreed to "any provision that mandates scrutiny of our nuclear weapons programme or any unsafeguarded nuclear facilities."

"India is committed to a voluntary, unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing," Singh said.

But he added: "The agreement does not in any way affect India's right to undertake future nuclear tests, if it is necessary."

"There is no question that we will ever compromise, in any manner, our independent foreign policy. We shall retain our strategic autonomy," he said.

Agreed in principle last year, the detailed pact governing nuclear trade between India and United States -- also called the 123 agreement -- was concluded in Washington last month.

The accord has to get the backing of the US Congress.

India's right-wing Hindu nationalists rejected the deal earlier this month, saying Washington could refuse to honour the agreement if India tested a nuclear weapon.

India's communists -- who lend valuable outside support to Singh's coalition government -- also rejected the deal, claiming the pact impinged on the country's sovereignty.

But Singh has faced down criticism and said the deal would not be renegotiated, raising fears it could destabilise his coalition government.

In a weekend newspaper interview, Singh dared the Communists to withdraw support for the government, with the Left in turn warning of "heavy political consequences."

Singh on Monday tried to allay some of the misgivings over the accord.

The civilian nuclear deal had an "elaborate, multi-layered consultation process" in case either party wanted to end it, he said.

The pact would enable India to meet the "twin challenges of energy security and environmental sustainability" besides opening "new doors in capitals across the world" that would help India "regain our due place in global councils," he said.

"We intend to carry forward our cooperation with other countries in civil nuclear energy, in particular with major nuclear suppliers such as Russia and France," Singh said adding India aimed to generate 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2020.

Singh's statement, however, did not placate the Communists, who walked out of the house immediately as the prime minister finished his speech.

"The prime minister's statement does not give any new point. It is only a defence of the agreement. There should be a thorough discussion in the House," Communist Party of India national secretary D. Raja said.

The Hindu nationalists too rejected Singh's remarks as a "bundle of same untruths, half-truths and pure white lies," the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Earlier Monday, the lower house of parliament was adjourned twice with lawmakers demanding a suspension of usual legislative business and an immediate discussion on the subject.

The debate, kickstarted by Singh's statement, is likely to continue over the next several days.

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