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PM ready for chopper talks

New Delhi, Feb. 18: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today claimed the government had “nothing to hide” in the VVIP helicopter deal even as his UK counterpart landed in India and said that it was an issue that New Delhi must sort out with Rome because Finmeccanica is an Italian company.

Two CBI officials and a defence ministry official left for Rome tonight to seek details of the Italian judicial inquiry in which the former head of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal (retired) Shashi P. Tyagi, and his cousins have been named as alleged middlemen in the Euro 556-million (Rs 3,550 crore) deal for 12 AW101 helicopters.

An Italian court has found preliminary evidence that bribes totalling more than Rs 350 crore were routed through a network of agents and companies based in the UK, Tunisia and probably Dubai.

“We can always sit down. There is scope for discussion. Parliament is a forum for discussion. We are ready to discuss all issues,” the Prime Minister said when asked about the Opposition’s threat to stall Parliament. Parliament’s budget session begins on Thursday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who landed in Mumbai today, told NDTV and BBC that while he was ready to discuss all issues, the investigation into the bribery charges was a matter for the Italian and Indian governments.

Finmeccanica is an Italian conglomerate that owns AgustaWestland that has made the helicopters. The company’s manufacturing facility, from where the choppers have been delivered, is in Yeovil in southwest England.

Three of the 12 helicopters have been received by the IAF and nine are to be delivered by the end of the year. But defence minister A.K. Antony has sent a showcause notice to AgustaWestland with a deadline that expires this week.

The Indian defence ministry has threatened to cancel the contract after the arrests of Finmeccanica CEO Giuseppe Orsi and the AgustaWestland chief Bruno Spagnolini.

The Indian side is expected to ask Cameron for pro-active help in investigating the charges of bribery. The foreign office had sent a note verbale to the UK for which it has got an “interim response” that is less than satisfactory. “We would like a full-fledged response,” the foreign office spokesperson said.

Cameron is scheduled to meet Manmohan Singh tomorrow. The chopper deal was not on the agenda of the talks but now looks set to overshadow the visit.

In his discussions with the Indian government, Cameron is expected to make the case for the British-built helicopter and try to save the deal since hundreds of jobs in Yeovil are at stake. He will resist pressure to initiate a separate British investigation, however, a senior Whitehall official said.

External affairs minister Salman Khurshid said that India was investigating the charges of bribery “at many levels”. He said that sending Letters Rogatory to Italy is the “best and strongest method” to get co-operation of the Italian judicial authorities.

“Our courts have to issue them and they have to be addressed by Italian courts. But it (Letters Rogatory) is the best and strongest method available to us and hope that will work,” he said. But the CBI team and the defence ministry official have left for Italy without such documentation.

Khurshid said India had not yet been able to get “concrete material” from Italian authorities.

“Our team is there to gather information and materials which can be analysed when they come,” he said.