GENEVA -- U.S. and Soviet negotiators began a new round of arms talks Thursday with the Soviets immediately presenting Mikhail Gorbachev's sweeping proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2000.
The Soviet maneuver evidently surprised U.S. delegates, who tried to obtain as many details as possible in the few hours before the talks resumed.
On the eve of the start of the fourth round of talks, Gorbachev proposed the elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2000, beginning with 50 percent reductions by the two major powers, and he announced a three-month extension of the unilateral Soviet moratorium on nuclear tests.
The plan for eliminating nuclear weapons again calls for the United States to abandon its 'Stcr Wars' project for an anti-missile shield - an issue that stalemated the talks last year.
Soviet chief negotiator Viktor P. Karpov outlined Gorbachev's three-stage plan at the first meeting of the new talks in Geneva, Soviet officials said. The talks were later recessed until Tuesday.
U.S. delegation leader Max M. Kampelman had no comment on the proposal, but President Reagan said in Washington he was encouraged by the offer and welcomed it as the first Soviet call for 'actually eliminating nuclear weapons.'
'It's different from things that we've heard in the past from leaders in the Soviet Union,' said Reagan, who added, 'We're studying it with great care.'
But Reagan remains 'totally committed' to his 'Star Wars' missile-defense program, despite Soviet insistence that the effort be abandoned as a condition for arms reductions, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said.
Gorbachev made his proposal Wednesday night and followed up Thursday with another statement hitching any cuts in nuclear arsenals to the scrapping of his Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as 'Star Wars.'
The Soviet government news agency Tass also said that continuation of SDI 'would blast every hope for a reduction of nuclear arsenals on earth.'
Thursday's arms talks were the first since Reagan and Gorbachev held their Geneva summit last November. The talks lasted two hours and 10 minutes.
Thursday's session, a plenary meeting of full delegations at the Soviet diplomatic mission, was held in the same conference room specially prepared for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit. The room is decorated in gold and silver, lit by crystal chandeliers and features paintings of pastoral scenes.
'I hope this room will prove not only to be more spacious but will also assure more space for a creative solution,' Karpov told Kampelman as they took their seats.
Kampelman, on his return to Geneva on Tuesday, said the Soviet Union has a space anti-missile program similar to 'Star Wars.' It is thus 'essential' that the two powers 'jointly apply' any successful results of their research, Kampelman said.
Although Reagan and Gorbachev agreed at the summit to 'accelerate' work at the arms talks, delegates on both sides said negotiations would follow the same pattern as during the first three rounds last year.
There will be the same once-weekly meetings between different negotiating groups for the three main issues -- intercontinental strategic nuclear weapons, intermediate or medium-range nuclear forces, and space.