British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Helmut Kohl failed to resolve their differences on West Germany's call for NATO-Soviet talks on reducing short-range nuclear weapons in Europe.

"If you get rid of short-range nuclear weapons - only 88, but they are absolutely vital - you get rid of one principal element of flexible response," Thatcher declared Sunday following their three-hour meeting. But Kohl reiterated his demand for early negotiations on a reduction in the weapons.In what was seen as sharp criticism of West Germany, Thatcher said decisions on NATO policy could only be made at the NATO summit in late May. "Some people have already set out what the way forward should be, but I believe it is for negotiation by all heads of government then," she said.

Britain and the United States have criticized the West German suggestion, arguing it would lead to a de-nuclearization of Europe and give a clear military advantage to the East bloc, which has superior conventional forces.

"I'm aware some people hold that view militarily," Thatcher said of calls to eliminate short-range nuclear weapons. "It is not one I hold, it is not one NATO holds." She said a third zero option - the complete elimination of nuclear weapons - would mean "the Soviet Union had achieved its objective of getting land-based American nuclear weapons out of Europe."

Kohl, whose government is faced with a large anti-NATO lobby, reiterated his government's refusal to back plans for the modernization of the alliance's Lance short-range nuclear missiles before 1992.

He read from a policy statement his government adopted recently that ties the proposed modernization to progress in the newly opened negotiations on conventional arms and in the talks he favors on reducing short-range nuclear weapons. Britain and the United States recently urged Kohl to back the modernization plans before the NATO summit.

Thatcher said in "the past five years the Soviet Union has updated 95 percent of her short-range nuclear weapons. Our much smaller number dates from 1972." She said "flexible strategy, which is the agreed NATO strategy, requires short-range nuclear weapons."

She added that "because obsolete weapons do not deter," NATO policy statements call for keeping the weapons "up to date where necessary." Kohl expressed confidence member states would reach agreement on the missiles before the NATO summit but gave no indication he was prepared to compromise.

"I think this is an issue that concerns Germany more than anyone else," he said, referring to the fact that both West and East Germany are within direct range of short-range missiles deployed in Europe.

"There are still some differences," said Kohl, who is expected to brief President Bush on the talks in the next few days. "It is my simple wish and request to our friends and partners in NATO that we prepare a joint document for the NATO summit that takes into consideration our special situation," he said.