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G8 puts off Star Wars debate

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MIYAZAKI, Japan — Foreign ministers of the world's big powers held talks Wednesday on global headaches ranging from small arms to the Kores and the Balkans, while barely touching on missile defense.

The ministers of the Group of Eight agreed to include a ban on the export of small arms to war-torn countries in a report they are preparing for a summit of their national leaders next week, a Japanese official said.

But on the touchy topic of U.S. plans for a national missile shield against attacks from rogue states — an initiative fiercely opposed by Russia and China — they decided to leave the key debate to a meeting between President Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the July 21-23 summit.

"Of course we must rely on the continuing dialogue between the United States and Russia in the first place, and then we will see what are the effects for other nations of a possible agreement between the United States and Russia," Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini told a group of reporters.

Over dinner, the ministers turned to regional hot spots, applauding North Korea's cautious opening to the West but spending the bulk of their time on the Balkans.

The United States was seeking a strong statement, in the teeth of Russian reluctance, against amendments to the Yugoslav constitution that allow President Slobodan Milosevic to extend his hold on power.

In a communique to be issued on Thursday, the ministers will also give a nod to the need to reform the United Nations Security Council, on which Tokyo wants a permanent seat. But with members at odds over the content of those reforms, details will be scant.

At their two-hour working dinner at a lavish resort complex in this southern Japanese city, the ministers debated regional topics including the Korean peninsula, Indonesia and East Timor.

They welcomed Stalinist North Korea's tentative steps to improve relations with the West, but also took note of security and humanitarian issues.

A debate over Yugoslavia, however, pushed planned talks on the Middle East, South Asia and Africa off the agenda.

Earlier in the day, U.S. Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott used a lunch meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to seek backing for a strong statement by the G8 ministers against last week's amendments to the Yugoslav constitution that allow Milosevic to win a new period in office at the ballot box when his present term expires in mid-2000.

"Many countries present at the working dinner took a critical view of the chain of events seen recently" in Yugoslavia, the Japanese official said. But he added that the exact wording to be included in Thursday's communique had yet to be worked out.

About 5,000 police have been mobilized, and Japanese Coast Guard ships were patrolling the waters off the holiday resort where the ministers from the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Russia are meeting.

Before getting down to work, the ministers braved the heat and humidity to plant a ceremonial tree on the edge of a golf course. Then, led by the host country's Foreign Minister Yohei Kono, they took part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Purists frowned at the way some of the ministers handled their delicate cups, while some of the ministers frowned when they sipped the bitter green tea.

"I thought it was very original . . . but it tastes nothing like tea really," French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said.

The G8 was seeking to craft a comprehensive plan aimed at preventing conflicts rather than being forced to react to them once they have erupted.

Many of those conflicts are in Africa, which has suffered one of its worst years for war since the early days of independence in the 1960s. A number of them are being financed by illicit diamond sales.

Britain has taken the lead in orchestrating an international crackdown on so-called conflict diamonds and pressed the G8 to keep up the momentum of last week's U.N. vote to impose an embargo on diamond exports from wartorn Sierra Leone.

Vedrine said he had suggested creating a permanent group of experts under the U.N. Security Council to define ways of banning illicit diamond trafficking on a case-by-case basis.

Russia had wanted the G8 ministers to debate America's national missile defense plan in the afternoon, but in the end the ministers touched on it only long enough to restate their established positions.

"That wasn't the main topic of the afternoon. This was just a brief exchange of views," according to Vedrine, who said the controversy would be included only obliquely in Thursday's communique.