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Divisions continue to hamper trade talks

GENEVA -- The squabbling began even before the talks did.

The world's most powerful trading nations gathering yesterday to hammer out a long-delayed global trade treaty spent most of the first day finger-pointing -- leaving little apparent hope of a breakthrough when official talks begin today.

Following meetings of key negotiating blocs, developing countries accused rich nations of shirking their duties while the Europeans were publicly split over sensitive cuts to farm tariffs.

``Somehow the gaps don't seem to diminish," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said of the differences that have put the Doha round of trade talks two years behind schedule.

More than 60 ministers are participating in the talks . ``It is very obvious we have reached a critical stage of negotiations," EU trade chief Peter Mandelson said. ``This isn't now the time for bluffing or brinkmanship."

Other leaders agreed, but only the EU seemed ready to make some concessions -- and that overture was rejected by some countries under its own umbrella.

Mandelson said the 25-nation bloc was ``prepared, if the circumstances are right, significantly to improve our offer in agriculture market access, moving towards and close to what the G-20 have asked for."

But French Trade Minister Christine Lagarde said Mandelson was not authorized at an EU meeting earlier yesterday to improve upon Europe's existing offer of a 39 percent cut in allowed levels of farm tariffs -- below the 54 percent demanded by the G-20, led by Brazil and India.

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