NATIONAL

PM leaves tomorrow on three-nation tour

NEW DELHI NOV. 10. The Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leaves on a three-nation, six-day foreign tour on Tuesday that will take him to Russia, Tajikistan and Syria, the Foreign Secretary, Kanwal Sibal, announced today.

During their annual summit on November 12, the Prime Minister and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, will have their fourth meeting in the past 12 months, Mr. Sibal pointed out. Soon after arrival in Moscow tomorrow, Mr. Putin is to host a private dinner for Mr. Vajpayee at his dacha. Apart from issuing a joint statement, India and Russia will sign 10 agreements in the fields of science and technology, space, earthquake research as well as a number of bilateral banking accords. The two leaders will "review" their defence relationship at the highest level.

On the defence front, Mr. Sibal said he had nothing to say on whether or not the contract for the purchase of Admiral Gorshkov, the Russian aircraft carrier, would be signed during the current visit of the Prime Minister. "I leave it to the Defence Ministry to respond."

In an interview to this correspondent, the Russian Ambassador to India, Alexander M. Kadakin, said recently that "price negotiations" on the Gorshkov were going on and could be concluded in the next few weeks.

Asked if India would take up with Russia the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group that prohibit the sale of civilian nuclear reactors to countries like India, which do not accept "full scope" safeguards, Mr. Sibal said both India and Russia were interested in taking their cooperation in this sector further. India, he said, was interested in acquiring more nuclear reactors.

Pointing to the close contacts that existed between India and Russia, the Foreign Secretary said efforts were being made to give a push to the stagnating trade relationship between the two countries.

According to Mr. Sibal, the India-Russian bilateral trade was about $1.4 billions while India's trade with China was expected to touch $7 billions this year. To address this aspect of the relationship, 90 Indian businesspersons will be present during Mr. Vajpayee's Moscow visit.

During the Russian leg of his tour, the Prime Minister will speak at a business meeting and also address the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, and the Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, are scheduled to call on Mr. Vajpayee.

On November 13, the Prime Minister will fly from Moscow to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where he will meet the President, Emomali Sharifovich Rakhmanov, and the Prime Minister, Akil Akilov.

It will be the first-ever visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Tajikistan since the country obtained independence on September 9, 1991. Only recently, Tajikistan opened an embassy in New Delhi.

The Prime Minister is to unveil a Mahatma Gandhi statue in Dushanbe, Mr. Sibal said. Two agreements on terrorism and bilateral investment protection will be signed. Mr. Rakhmanov hosts a lunch in the Prime Minister's honour on November 14.

On November 14 itself, the Prime Minister arrives in Damascus for a three-day state visit to Syria during which he will have extensive talks with the President, Basher al-Assad. Rajiv Gandhi was the last Indian Prime Minister to visit Damascus back in 1988.

A number of agreements are to be signed between the two countries, including in education, information technology and biotechnology spheres, the Foreign Secretary maintained. ONGC Videsh is expected to sign a contract soon to prospect for oil in a block in Syria.

Asked if Mr. Vajpayee's visit to Syria was to "balance" India's growing relationship with Israel, the Foreign Secretary said India had a "natural" relationship with the Arab world and was now developing its ties with Israel as well.

There was, he said, no effort to balance relationships as India pursued two diplomatic tracks — one with the Arab world and the other with Israel. Syria, he said, was a key nation wedged between Israel and Iraq.

Syria's secular orientation was important for India, Mr. Sibal stressed, adding that the two countries shared perceptions on a number of issues.

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