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America offers arms sale salve

New York, Sept. 11: In a clear effort to deflect criticism that India-US relations had hit a plateau, the Pentagon has decided to sell $100 million worth of arms to India almost on the eve of a meeting between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President George W. Bush.

The sale, which has been notified to the US Congress as required by law, involves four counter-battery artillery radar sets, 13 Sincgar radios, trailers, communication equipment and global position systems.

India has been seeking the equipment from the US for some years, but the timing of Pentagon’s decision is aimed at distinctly improving the atmospherics for the Vajpayee-Bush meeting on Thursday.

The decision has also been made taking into consideration the criticism that the US has been cosying up to Pakistan more than is desirable — a complaint expected to find more echoes this week as Bush meets General Pervez Musharraf and the latter continues his high-profile media and other appearances in New York.

A few weeks ago, the Pentagon surprised critics of the Bush administration’s Pakistan policy with a decision to sell six Aerostat L-88 radar systems at a cost of about $155 million. The justification for the sale was that the equipment was needed to monitor Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, both on the ground and against low-flying aircraft near this border.

The sale had alarmed Indians, coming only days after another decision by the Bush administration to sell seven second-hand C-130E aircraft and a host of other equipment at a cost of $75 million. These represented the first US military sales to Pakistan in more than a decade. There were fears in Delhi that the decision could open the door for a return to the military ties between Pakistan and the US during the Cold War era.

The Bush administration has been proclaiming that India-US defence ties are on the upswing, but so far there has been only one American military sale to India to underscore this claim. This sale, announced in February, involved eight weapon- locating radar systems and associated equipment at a cost of $146 million.

India has been seeking American weapons for some years, but negotiations on such sales have been bogged down and legislative impediments have also come in their way.

Pentagon’s latest decision to sell the counter-battery artillery radar sets will, however, considerably improve the mood in the ministry of defence in Delhi, where there has been frustration over the slow progress of arms sales talks.

The artillery radars will considerably enhance India’s defensive potential in areas along the Line of Control (LoC) where it has been hamstrung by Pakistan’s geographical advantages.

In another shot in the arm for the Bush-Vajpayee meeting here, US secretary of state Colin Powell declined to reaffirm his earlier assertions that infiltration across the LoC had come down after Musharraf’s promise to Americans to stop such activity permanently.

After talks with external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha in Washington this week, Powell said: “I reaffirmed to the minister that we would continue to press the Pakistani government to do everything possible to stop the cross-border infiltration and reminded them of the commitment they have made not only to the US, but to the international community that they would not support such activity and would work actively to stop it.”

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