US-India relations sink to a new low

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

Relations between the newly Westernised India and the United States, which it has been courting since the demise of its old ally, the Soviet Union, have reached a new low.

The Indian home minister, SB Chavan, accused the US of having "evil designs" on Kashmir, where Indian security forces are trying to quell a five-year uprising by Muslim separatists. Then, last week, Washington leaked intelligence reports that claimed India was planning a secret atomic test in the deserts of Rajasthan.

An Indian foreign ministry spokesman denounced as "highly speculative" the allegations, which first surfaced last week in the New York Times.

The fact that India responded with less than a resounding "no" to these charges has concerned some Western diplomats. Citing intelligence experts, the paper claimed that US spy satellites had spotted unusually high levels of activity around India's nuclear test site at Pokharan.

"These were regular army exercises taking place near the Pokharan plant," a foreign ministry spokesman in New Delhi said. US intelligence experts quoted by the New York Times claimed that India was either preparing to test a second nuclear bomb - a first device was exploded in 1974 at the desert site - or was fine-tuning its bomb-making procedures.

In New Delhi, officials accused Washington of using the spy photos as a ploy to pressurise India into signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by next autumn, to tie in with President Clinton's bid for re-election. India has refused to join the ban, which goes into effect in late 1996, insisting that it would leave the US, Russia, China, France and Britain with an edge in nuclear know-how.

Western diplomats in New Delhi are worried that a second test may spur Pakistan into speeding up its own secret nuclear weapons programme. A Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman said on Sunday that any nuclear test by India would "jeopardise peace and stability in the region".

No date for India's planned nuclear blast was mentioned by the Washington intelligence sources, who told the New York Times: "If [the Indians'] motive is to get scientific knowledge, it might be months or years before they do the test.

"If it's for political reasons, it could be this weekend."

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