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Soviets unveil shift on `star wars'

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The Soviet Union has gone public with a new arms control proposal which a Soviet commentator says marks a ``serious step'' to bridge the positions of the superpowers. It specifically allows the United States to proceed with limited research into a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the so-called ``star wars'' system, says Vladimir Chernyshev, a commentator on military and arms control issues for the Soviet news agency Tass. Previously, Soviet objections to SDI have been a major stumbling block in the Geneva arms control talks.

The new proposal was made public yesterday in a published account of a speech by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee. The meeting was held behind closed doors.

According to Tass, Mr. Gorbachev outlined the latest Soviet proposals at the Geneva talks. These included:

A limit for both superpowers of 8,000 strategic (long-range) nuclear warheads -- on a maximum of 1,600 delivery vehicles (``units'').

An agreement not to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty for ``at least 15 years.''

An agreement to limit SDI research to ``laboratory tests.''

Separating the issue of medium-range nuclear weapons -- such as US and Soviet missiles in Europe -- from a comprehensive agreement on limiting strategic arms.

A Pentagon official in London rejected the proposal. The official, who asked not to be named, said that a large part of SDI involved experiments in space and that a restriction to laboratory research would thwart the program.

The exact numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles involved in the proposal were omitted from the Soviet press accounts of the Gorbachev speech, and were also dropped from several Tass accounts. That suggests that the issue is still a sensitive one within the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, it marks the first time in recent years that a Soviet leader has publicly spelled out specific disarmament proposals that have been put forward at arms control negotiations.

The move reflects Soviet pique that the outlines of such proposals are routinely ``leaked'' to the Western press. Moreover, it is the Kremlin's way of responding to Western charges that it does not follow up public arms control initiatives with substantive proposals at Geneva.

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