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Arms talks head into third day U.S., Soviet Union get close to accord


WASHINGTON -- The United States and the Soviet Union wil go into a third day of talks today in a strenuous effort to finish nine years of negotiations and conclude an agreement cutting ++ long-range nuclear weapons in time for Presidents Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev to schedule a summit for the end of this month.

In an abrupt change of plans, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and his counterpart, Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, did not go into a previously scheduled session late last night, instead deciding to resume this morning, the State Department said.

Mr. Baker and Mr. Bessmertnykh met in two sessions yesterday for a total of five hours. After a dinner break, they were planning to meet again at 9:30 p.m.

But, according to the Associated Press, a few minutes before 9 p.m., a senior U.S. official said, Mr. Baker telephoned Mr. Bessmertnykh and suggested waiting until this morning, giving their specialists the night to chip away at the technicalities.

The official, who demanded anonymity, told the Associated Press that Mr. Baker had proposed to Mr. Bessmertnykh an approach to try to wrap up work on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The official said Mr. Baker had made no new proposals on the issues but had suggested that he and Mr. Bessmertnykh exchange their "bottom-line positions" -- but they would not be binding until all issues were resolved.

The START negotiations amounted to what could be the "endgame" of nine years' work on a treaty slashing U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals between 25 percent and 35 percent, cutting stockpiles of the most threatening long-range nuclear missiles, bombers and submarines.

They began Thursday with high expectations after Mr. Gorbachev, reacting swiftly to a request made just a week ago by Mr. Bush, dispatched his foreign minister and the chief of the Soviet general staff to Washington with what Mr. Bessmertnykh said was enough authority to conclude a deal.

But the highly technical nature of the remaining three issues threatened to defy any political will to compromise. As Mr. Bessmertnykh joked Thursday, "In a certain way, we are hostages of crazy professors or some technicians."

Mr. Baker said Thursday night after 4 1/2 hours of talks that "if we were 96 percent [finished] a couple of weeks ago, we're 97 percent now."

The Soviets had brought "very meaningful and substantial" proposals to resolve two of the remaining disputes, involving new types of missiles that would be allowed under the treaty and sharing data from test flights, but Mr. Baker said the two sides were not "home free."

In a previous letter from Mr. Gorbachev to Mr. Bush, the Soviets made a proposal to work out a deal on the third big issue, "downloading." This involves reducing the number of warheads per missile in return for the ability to increase the missile stockpile.

Mr. Bush has made the scheduling of a superpower summit contingent on wrapping up an agreement.

A conclusion this weekend, in advance of next week's meeting in London between Mr. Gorbachev and leaders of seven industrialized democracies, could allow the two countries to meet their latest target date of the end of July.

The treaty would mark the third landmark arms accord involving the United States and the Soviet Union in recent years. The first, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, wiped out an entire class of nuclear weapons in Europe. The conventional arms treaty brought large-scale cuts in non-nuclear forces and locked in the Soviet withdrawal from Western Europe.

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