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Chirac comes calling, Scorpene goes to CBI

New Delhi, Feb. 19: The defence ministry has asked for a probe by the CBI after three naval officers were dismissed for leaking information from the naval war room and subsequent allegations that agents influenced a decision to buy French Scorpene submarines for $ 3.5 billion (about Rs 16,000 crore).

The request for the probe was made by naval headquarters as the chief of naval staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, was related to a businessman who is alleged to have benefited from the war room leak.

But the ordering of the CBI inquiry on the day that French President Jacques Chirac landed in Delhi can cast a shadow over his tour. The decision to sell the Scorpene submarines to India was announced by Chirac in September last year and was hailed as a great step in India-France military ties.

During his visit to India beginning tonight, Chirac is expected to further push military cooperation and sale of French armaments to India.

Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee was meeting officials late tonight and was understood to be mulling over a statement on the inquiry that he may make tomorrow.

The terms of reference of the probe and its ambit have not been made clear as yet. On Saturday, senior navy officials are understood to have urged defence secretary Shekhar Dutt to call in the CBI to clear the name of the navy chief.

When the navy instituted an inquiry into the leak of information in the middle of last year, Admiral Prakash declared to Mukherjee that one of the links in the chain was a relative of his wife. He even offered to resign but was persuaded by the minister to stay on. Mukherjee said there was nothing to indict the navy chief.

Three navy officers, Captain Kashyap Kumar and Commanders V. Rana and V.K. Jha, were dismissed from service in October after an internal inquiry by the assistant chief of naval staff (information technology), Rear Admiral Mahadevan, held them guilty of downloading classified data into a pendrive and leaking the information on procurements to firms who were seeking to sell military equipment to India.

An air force officer, Wing Commander Surve, “cross-posted” with the directorate of naval operations, was earlier sacked in this connection.

The dismissed officers have gone to court against the defence ministry’s decision.

The officers were said to have passed on information to a businessman, Ravi Shankaran. The request for the CBI probe was made after a newsweekly, Outlook, published a series of stories insinuating that the officers had access to the chief of naval staff and were able to influence the decision to contract the submarines on which middlemen were being paid commissions.

Before the navy made the request for the CBI probe, the French company Thales ' which owns Armaris, the company with which the Scorpenes have been contracted ' denied that it had employed agents to win the deal.

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