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Clinton mends fences with Major

ANTHONY LAKE, President Clinton's National Security Adviser, has strongly denied a statement by Ray Seitz, the US ambassador to Britain, that the administration accepts that it made a mistake in granting a visa to the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, earlier this month.

His firm rebuttal is likely to add to the simmering row within the administration over the granting of the visa over strong British objections. A senior diplomat in Washington said: 'The State Department and FBI are now saying 'I told you so'.'

Dr Lake, acknowledging Mr Seitz as 'a very, very senior official', said flatly: 'I am also a senior official, and he is wrong.' The State Department and FBI, both of which originally opposed granting Mr Adams a visa, now say that allowing him to enter the US failed to move Sinn Fein towards peace.

Stressing that disagreement with Britain over the visa was 'tactical, not strategic', Dr Lake, who personally advised President Clinton to let Mr Adams into the country, said the US had never expected the Sinn Fein leader to make immediate concessions. He confirmed that the US consulate in Belfast had also opposed the visa.

Britain is keen to play down the political and diplomatic damage caused to relations with the US by Mr Adams' visit. Officials also deny that he won a propaganda victory, pointing to hostile editorials. A diplomat said: 'If he applies for a visa again it is difficult to believe he would get it.' This is unlikely to happen, however, because Sinn Fein is happy with what it has already achieved and does not want risk a rebuff.

John Major is unlikely to press President Clinton strongly over the visa question when he arrives in the US on Sunday. But the friendliness with which he is being greeted, including an overnight stay at the White House and a visit to Pittsburgh, where his father was brought up, is partly motivated by Mr Clinton's desire to show that he does not personally dislike Mr Major. Diplomats insist that talk of antipathy between the two leaders is largely a media myth born during the 1992 presidential election. Conservative Party officials advised Republicans, and the Home Office conducted a fruitless search to see if Mr Clinton had ever applied for a British passport. Had they found such an application he would probably have lost the election.

Differences over Bosnia were a more concrete source of dispute in 1993, but the US and British positions have become closer since the success of the ultimatum to the Serbs to withdraw their guns surrounding Sarajevo. Both Mr Clinton and Mr Major are keen to build on the new credibility of Nato threats. Mr Clinton is keen not to threaten action against the Serbs unless such threats can be fulfilled.

A further persistent source of dispute between Britain and the US is the future of the links between British Airways and USAir and the access of US airlines to Heathrow. British officials see the hostility of other US airlines as being motivated by a desire to kill off financially troubled USAir and divide up its routes. 'They smell blood,' said one diplomat.

In the aftermath of the Gulf war there was some anger in Britain at the speed with which the US moved to use its political predominance in the Gulf to win military and commercial contracts. This was exacerbated by US companies winning a dollars 6bn ( pounds 4bn) contract to supply 50 planes to Saudia, the Saudi airline, after lobbying by Mr Clinton.

The amount of time devoted by the British and American governments to asserting the depth of their amity, however, is beginning to focus attention on their differences. It is true that Conservative governments are much more at home with Republican administrations. It is also Mr Clinton's political style to avoid making enemies and unlikely that he harbours any real hostility towards Mr Major.

(Photograph omitted)