Clinton pleads with Pakistan as talks sign off on note of gloom

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton and senior United States officials pleaded with Pakistan yesterday not to unleash a nuclear arms race on the Indian subcontinent by conducting a nuclear test in response to the series conducted by India.

Mr Clinton and his team in Birmingham for the G8 summit had been briefed on the mood in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, by Strobe Talbott, the US deputy secretary of state, who was dispatched at the head of an emergency American mission to the country immediately after India's action last week.

Pakistan denied an Indian report that it tested a nuclear device yesterday, but said it would go ahead when it was ready. "It's just a question of timing," the foreign minister Gohar Ayub said. "It's a matter of when, not if, Pakistan will test ... The decision has already been taken by cabinet."

In a television interview, during which he also reinforced Tony Blair's call for a "Yes" vote in Northern Ireland, President Clinton said the answer to the problems of India and Pakistan was "not for India to become a nuclear power and then for Pakistan to match it stride for stride".

Setting out a scenario that had China and Russia then moving troops to support Pakistan and India respectively, Mr Clinton said: "It's a nutty way to go, it is not the way to chart the future."

In a second - and unscripted - appeal, immediately after the conclusion of the G8 summit, Mr Clinton told reporters that he still had hopes that Pakistan would not carry out a nuclear test, holding out the promise of enhanced US security assistance for the country if it refrained.

"In the long run," Mr Clinton said, "and indeed before then, the political, the economic and the security interests of Pakistan and Pakistan's standing in the world would be dramatically increased if they walked away from a test. The whole rest of the world would think they were stronger and would be profoundly impressed."

For people to think that conducting a nuclear test was "a new measure of either national security or national greatness," he said, would be "a terrible signal" to send the world.

Mr Clinton's plaintive tone suggested a recognition that no warning or incentive from the US would dissuade the Pakistani leadership from going ahead with tests.

Mr Talbott declined to set out publicly the response he had found in Pakistan or the specific arguments he had presented on Mr Clinton's behalf.

But he stressed that the Pakistani leaders he had met fully understood the considerations against following India's precedent, but reserved the "sovereign right" to decide what to do. He said he felt "very strongly" that at least when he left Islamabad, Pakistan had not taken a decision. They are, he said, "wrestling with what for them is an extremely difficult and vexing dilemma" and "clearly regard India's action as directly threatening their national security". The US is believed to have offered terms for the unfreezing of a consignment of F-16 aircraft that Pakistan has paid for but not received, and proposed additional security guarantees. US officials have also spelt out that Pakistan would be subject to sanctions identical to those imposed on India, but that the effect would be more drastic because of Pakistan's greater dependence on aid and foreign loans.

In a formal statement adopted in Birmingham, the Group of Eight condemned India's action, urged future restraint and called on India to move immediately towards signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Eight, however, could not agree joint action and Pakistan expressed disappointment with a response it regarded as woefully inadequate.

t The Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, told President Clinton he has taken new steps to clamp down on exports of missile technology, a step the America leader hopes will curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. Mr Yeltsin also pledged to push his parliament to ratify the Start II pact that would cut US and Russian nuclear arsenals.

India's test site, page 13

Leading article, page 18

Paul Vallely, page 19