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US trade chief sees no major breakthrough at meetings to revive deadlocked WTO talks

The United States downplayed prospects for an immediate breakthrough in stalled global trade talks as top officials from six key member nations of the World Trade Organization headed for talks in India's capital Thursday.

Top trade representatives from the U.S., European Union, Brazil and India were holding formal talks for the first time since they failed to resolve differences and suspended the so-called Doha-round of negotiations in July last year. Trade ministers from Japan and Australia were scheduled to join the talks later Thursday.

"(We are) not expecting a breakthrough here because this is really a stocktaking meeting," U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told reporters. She, however, added that there was a "sense of momentum" and that she had come to the meetings with a "positive attitude."

The WTO's Doha round of negotiations, named after the capital of Qatar where they began in 2001, have been stalled over rich nations' refusal to slash farm subsidies and poor countries' reluctance to grant greater access to their markets.

Attempts to revive the process through informal meetings over the past several months have failed as Washington has refused to offer further cuts to the billions of dollars (euros) in farm subsidies that help its farmers dump artificially cheap exports, including cotton, into the global market.

The U.S. stance has prompted the European Union to resist any further cuts in tariffs that protect its own farmers.

Trade officials from the United States, the European Union, Brazil and India _ the WTO's so called G-4 - held closed-door bilateral meetings Wednesday before Thursday's formal dialogue.

Brazilian Foreign and Trade Minister Celso Amorin told reporters that some progress was made in talks Wednesday.

"Differences are slowly narrowing down," he said after talks with European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

The meetings focussed on agricultural subsidies and tariffs, measures to enhance exports from the least-developed countries and concessions for poorer nations wanting to protect some of their domestic industries.

Biswajeet Dhar, who heads the WTO center at the government-run Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, said participants must make concrete offers to cut subsidies and tariffs rather than keep posturing.

But Schwab said the meetings in New Delhi were unlikely to result in concrete offers from participants.

"It's a 'what-if' conversation. No one is making formal offers in this context. What you are doing is you are exploring conditional offers," she said.

Officials from other countries participating in the talks were not immediately available for comments.

The Doha round faces the risk of getting further derailed if WTO member nations fail to revive the talks and make substantive progress before top U.S. officials get embroiled in 2008 presidential elections.

If a deal is reached before June 30, it would be easier for U.S. President George W. Bush to convince Congress to renew the so-called "fast track" option and go for a simple yes-or-no vote on the treaty.

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