Protesters Greet Sharon in India

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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched a historic visit to India on Tuesday amid tight security and nationwide protests, with an agenda focusing on trade, counterterrorism and military hardware sales.

During his three-day state visit, the first ever by an Israeli prime minister, Sharon hoped to seal the $1 billion sale of an advanced airborne radar system and other defense, trade and technology deals.

"I hope this visit, the first by an Israeli prime minister, will help us to move forward and accomplish all the things that we believe in," Sharon said. "We regard India as one of the most important countries in the world. ... We share a belief in democracy."

Pakistan, India's neighbor and chief rival, has warned that a military alliance between Israel and India could destabilize the region. On Monday, the government warned of "dangerous consequences" if India pursued the sale of technologically advanced Israeli weapons, such as the $1 billion sale of PHALCON radar systems (search).

A senior Indian defense official told The Associated Press on Tuesday that while Washington had given its blessing for the sale of four of the radar warning systems, the deal won't be finalized during Sharon's visit. He declined to elaborate on the apparent delay.

Before meetings with senior Indian officials began, Sharon placed a wreath and threw rose petals on the memorial of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of India's independence movement who was slain by a Hindu fundamentalist in 1948.

From the Indian capital of New Delhi to the financial hub of Bombay, thousands of protesters urged the government to be true to India's longtime support for the Palestinian struggle for self-rule.

Sharpshooters on rooftops and armed riot police in blue helmets and bulletproof shields ringed the capital.

Some 3,000 Muslims gathered at the city's 17th century mosque in Old Delhi, and marched toward the Israeli Embassy, waving black flags, before they were curbed by police.

About 800 members of India's communist parties marched near India Gate, the huge archway in the center of the city that commemorates Indian soldiers who died in World War I. They shouted slogans against Sharon and beat their chests. "Israeli Hitler Go Home," read one placard. "Weapon of mass destruction: A. Sharon," read another.

The United States is applauding the visit and could be looking toward a three-way strategic alliance in which India's proximity to the Persian Gulf region could serve Israeli and U.S. efforts to pre-empt any hostile action by countries such as Iran.

However, Washington might also oppose Israeli efforts to provide India with technology — some developed jointly with the United States — that could tilt the military balance in the region and upset American allies, such as Pakistan, in the global war on terrorism.

Indian leaders have always supported the Palestinian struggle for self-rule, long before India and Israel gained independence from Britain more than half a century ago.

India and Israel signed six agreements Tuesday to strengthen educational, environmental, medical and cultural exchanges, and work jointly to combat drug trafficking and terrorism.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said he believed Sharon's visit would boost military and trade ties without diluting India's support of the Palestinian cause.

Vajpayee, whose ruling Hindu-nationalist party faces general elections next year, is under pressure to balance his nation's long-standing support of the Palestinian struggle for self-rule while reaping the benefits of closer ties to Israel.

"We would very much like to see an end to violence and restoration of peace in these troubled lands," he said. "We have today discussed a number of new ideas to strengthen our bridge of friendship by more fully exploiting our comparative advantages."

In India, many see the burgeoning relations with Israel as advantageous. The countries have developed thriving commercial and military ties. Israeli experts say India already has bought Israeli missiles, radar, communications equipment and guns.

Bilateral trade grew to $1.27 billion last year, mostly in diamonds, agricultural machinery and chemical products, according to the Indian government.

The Indian and Israeli leaders were expected to discuss the sale to India of the Arrow missile defense system (search), developed by Israel and the United States. Also on the agenda is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of radical Islamic groups operating in Pakistan and Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan province divided between the South Asian rivals.

India has been battling an Islamic insurgency in its portion of Kashmir since 1989.

Sharon and his delegation planned to fly to Bombay on Thursday to meet with members of the city's small Jewish community before returning to Tel Aviv.