April 14, 2018 4:29 pm

U.S. officials make optimistic noises about NAFTA, say deal could be reached in weeks

WATCH: Is a NAFTA deal near?

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LIMA, Peru – A new North American free trade deal appeared closer to reality on Saturday, after U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence became the latest Trump administration official to suggest an agreement could be reached within a matter of weeks.

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The notably optimistic assessment followed a similar prediction by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Friday that a new NAFTA could be completed by the third week of May – a surprisingly specific date given past uncertainty about the talks.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau to talk NAFTA with Mike Pence, Mexico president during Peru trip

Taken together, the comments suggest the NAFTA negotiations – which American, Canadian and Mexican trade officials are continuing in Washington this weekend – are farther along than previously believed.

“It’s not done yet, there are still issues that need to be resolved,” Pence told reporters on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, which he and Ross were attending here in Peru’s capital with leaders from across the Western Hemisphere.

“But we believe there is a real possibility that we could arrive at an agreement within the next several weeks for a renegotiated NAFTA that’ll be a better deal for the American people.”

Pence was in Lima on behalf of U.S. President Donald Trump, who opted to stay home to oversee Friday’s military strikes against Syria. Earlier in the day, Pence met separately with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.

The meeting between Pence and Trudeau was largely overshadowed by those strikes, as the two condemned the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on April 7 that killed at least 40 people and injured hundreds more.

WATCH: Trudeau says Canada ‘stands with’ U.S. on missile strike against Syria

With reporters’ cameras and tape recorders rolling, Trudeau told Pence that the airstrikes were “unfortunate, but necessary” to stop the Syrian government from launching further chemical-weapons attacks against civilians.

“This is something we cannot accept, the use of chemical weapons on civilians,” Trudeau said, “and the international community needs to continue to stand extremely strongly as we continue to hold Syria accountable.”

The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the attack, while Russia has pointed the finger at Israel and Britain.

READ MORE: U.S. and allies didn’t bother waiting for UN report before striking Syria

The U.S., Canada and their allies have largely dismissed Damascus’s denials, but have not said how they know that the Syrian government was responsible.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh issued a statement Saturday saying “escalating violence through further military action is not the way to bring peace and stability to Syria and the surrounding region,” and calling for more funds to investigate atrocities in Syria.

For his part, Pence thanked Canada for backing the strikes and echoed Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron in saying Syria’s chemical-weapons facilities had been “degraded and crippled.”

WATCH: No report of civilian casualties after missile strikes against Syria

At the same time, he warned that the U.S. was prepared to “sustain this effort if necessary,” though he expressed hopes that the combination of strikes and condemnation from countries like Canada would see Syria abandon such weapons.

Trudeau will meet Macron and May next week when he travels to France and then Britain.

While the crisis in Syria was front and centre, Trudeau and Pence expressed optimism about the state of NAFTA negotiations, the results of which will have dramatic ramifications for the U.S. and Canada.

READ MORE: U.S. and allies launch military strikes against Syrian chemical weapon targets

There had been hopes leading up to this weekend’s summit that an agreement might be signed, but that did not happen and instead, U.S. negotiators softened their demands on autos even as Trump said he will to renegotiate “forever.”

But while Pence struck a notably confident tone, saying U.S. officials “think we’re close,” he went much farther a few hours later when he suggested a deal could be finished in a few weeks.

© 2018 The Canadian Press

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