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Nafta ministers to meet again as elections quicken pace

[WASHINGTON] Nafta talks will continue through the weekend before ministers regroup Tuesday, as negotiations take on new urgency while Mexico cautions nothing is imminent.

Senior US, Canadian and Mexican officials met in Washington Friday, under pressure from looming elections to reach a deal quickly. The countries have said they're hopeful for something by early May, though the US has indicated it may be only a deal "in principle."

Key figures struck a generally upbeat tone.

"We are basically working very hard, but I think there's still a lot of work to do," Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said on his way into meetings. On his way out, he downplayed the notion of a deal that focused only on the auto sector and said countries will need to be flexible to get a quick deal.

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The talks include Mr Guajardo, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, as well as White House adviser Jared Kushner, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray and Katie Telford, the chief of staff to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The countries are said to have concluded the chapter on telecommunications, the seventh completed out of about 30 potential chapters.

The talks are meant to produce a wide-ranging Nafta, not just new rules for automotive production, Mr Guajardo said. "There's no sense to modernise Nafta, to upgrade Nafta, if it's not based on what you have built in the original one," while adding in provisions for the new and modern economy, he said.

"We're well-advanced on telecom, energy and digital trade. This is a comprehensive Nafta." How quickly a deal is reached will depend "on the flexibilities that all the parties at the table show," he said.

Talks have been focused until now mostly on the crucial auto sector issue, and negotiators are "making good progress," Ms Freeland said Friday. The countries had energetic and productive talks during what she says is now essentially a "continuous" negotiating round, though she too has cautioned against assuming a deal is imminent, as has Mr Trudeau. Canada will "take the time it takes to get a good deal," Ms Freeland said.

Negotiators will stay in Washington over the weekend before the ministers meet again next week, Ms Freeland said. Mr Videgaray said the ministers would meet Tuesday in Washington.

Ms Freeland regularly calls auto rules of origin - which govern what share of a car needs to be made in the three countries to be traded tariff-free under Nafta - the most important issue.

"If we can get that right, that will be the core of a successful agreement and negotiation," she said Thursday. "A Canadian focus right now is on being sure we get the details right, being sure we come up with an outcome that is actually workable for our companies."