Protests, nuclear talks for Bush’s first India visit

NEW DELHI – Communist and Islamic groups were planning mass protests around India on Thursday as U.S. President George W. Bush begins formal talks on his first visit to the world’s largest democracy.

Bush arrived on Wednesday after a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. troops are still engaged in hunting down the architects of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The centerpoint of his visit to New Delhi is talks over a nuclear cooperation deal. Bush will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace.

While the three-day visit is welcomed by many in India as a sign of growing recognition that Asia’s third-largest economy is emerging as a regional power, it has angered Islamic and communist groups who oppose U.S. policies such as the invasion of Iraq.

Tens of thousands of anti-Bush demonstrators took to the streets, burning an effigy of the U.S. leader and chanting slogans such as «Go back, Bush» and «Bush is a killer.»

About 100,000 Muslim men gathered in the heart of the Indian capital shouting anti-Bush slogans, as hundreds of policemen in riot gear kept watch.

In the eastern city of Kolkata, a leftist stronghold, about 25,000 communist supporters converged on the city center for a public meeting organized by the Committee Against Bush Visit.

«Under President Bush, the U.S. continues to occupy Iraq and oppress its people. It threatens Syria and has targeted Iran on the issue of its nuclear program,» the committee said in a statement.

The nuclear pact, under which India would get access to U.S. technology in return for opening its civilian facilities to inspection and separating them from military plants, has run into opposition in Washington because India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

There are also differences over the details.

However, both sides have tried to play down expectations even as they continue to discuss the number of reactors India will declare as civilian.

«It’s a difficult issue,» Bush told reporters in Afghanistan. «It’s a difficult issue for the Indian government, it’s a difficult issue for the American government.

«So we’ll continue to dialogue and work. Hopefully, we can reach an agreement. If not, we’ll continue to work on it until we do.

«Our relationship with India is broader than our discussions about energy. Ours is a strategic relationship.»

India’s extensive atomic weapons program to counter neighboring Pakistan and China’s nuclear arms is a further concern for some members of the U.S. Congress, who have cast doubt on the viability of any deal between Singh and Bush.

During his visit to Afghanistan, Bush met President Hamid Karzai and his U.S.-backed government that took power after the Taliban regime was overthrown for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leaders after the September 11 attacks.

«It’s in our nation’s interest that Afghanistan develop into a democracy. It is in the interests of the United States of America for there to be examples around the world of what is possible,» he said at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.