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Baker Tells Soviet That U.S. Opposes Mideast Conference Now

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker on Tuesday rejected Soviet calls for a Middle East peace conference, saying such a gathering would be “counterproductive at this time.”

Baker made the remark at his first meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze since assuming office in January. Their meeting was described as friendly, despite a number of differences on policy matters.

The two men are here for an East-West conference whose major goal is a three-stage reduction in non-nuclear weapons and military personnel in Europe. There will also be discussions on human rights.

Baker said the human rights situation in the Soviet Union had improved through last December — when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visited New York.

But since then, not very much has happened, the secretary of state said.

The hour-long meeting between the two men took place without the presence of aides. Following that, arms control experts were called in to participate.

Baker told his Soviet counterpart the United States was not ready to go along with an international conference on the Middle East. Instead, the Bush administration favors direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, he said.

Baker told Shevardnadze that as far as the Middle East is concerned, “more work at the ground level” has to be done before a peace conference can be organized.

SOVIET MEETS WITH WALDHEIM

Diplomacy was not intended to be dealt with in front of television lights, he added.

Diplomatic sources later said the two had stuck to generalities, as both parties realized that no specific details could be discussed before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s visit next month to Washington.

Baker said he would meet with Shevardnadze in Geneva in May to resume their discussion.

The East-West conference was opened here officially by Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. This duty brought him some relief from his general isolation.

During the recently concluded, 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, no foreign minister came to visit Waldheim, who has been ostracized for his apparent link to Nazi wartime atrocities.

This time, at least four top diplomats will be paying courtesy calls at the Hofburg Castle.

Shevardnadze visited Waldheim on Monday, after seeing Chancellor Franz Vranitzky. Shevardnadze did not specify his reasons for the visit, nor did Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Andrcotti, who also saw Waldheim on Monday.

The foreign ministers of Hungary and Cyprus have also announced they intend to see the Austrian president.

As for Baker, he called relations between the United States and Austria excellent. But he would not discuss the U.S. decision to place Waldheim on its “watch list” of undesirable aliens.

Alois Mock, Austria’s vice chancellor and foreign minister, said that this designation, which bars the Austrian head of state from entering the United States, is the only shadow over U.S. Austrian relations.

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