The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Govt scrambles to contain oil stain

New Delhi, Nov. 3: The government and the Congress today launched simultaneous exercises to control the damage from the Iraq oil slick.

The capital witnessed a flurry of activity amid suggestions that foreign minister Natwar Singh, at the centre of the Iraq oil-for-food programme in the country, is unlikely to be forced out but the ruling establishment would not mind if he stepped down on his own or moved to a less sensitive berth.

The Centre hinted that it might order a probe into the Paul Volcker report and the Congress said it would slap a legal notice on the committee.

Last week, the committee had named Natwar as a “non-contractual beneficiary” in the Iraq oil-for-food scheme. Natwar had denied the charges, but his party had left him to fend for himself.

A statement issued by the PMO today said the government was “deeply concerned about the unverified references made in the Volcker Committee report” and that in its present form, it was “insufficient to arrive at any adverse or definitive conclusion”.

“Therefore, the government is determined to go to the root of the matter' a decision will be announced shortly.”

Asked when the probe would be instituted and what its nature would be, an official source said: “All that can be said is the government has set the field for an inquiry.”

The Congress decided to send a comprehensive legal notice to the Volcker committee and the UN, demanding full disclosure of the material based on which the panel had reached the “unverified conclusion” of the party being a “beneficiary” in the Iraqi oil scam.

In a statement, it said if the relevant material was not disclosed, it would seek an “unconditional” apology for “wrongly and maliciously making a reference to it”.

It did not mention Natwar, in keeping with its stand that he was “capable” of defending himself without its backing.

Natwar, who met the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi during the day, called on CPM general secretary Prakash Karat. The CPM leader, whose party was the only one to stand by Natwar when the scandal broke, said the meeting had nothing to do with the Volcker report. “We met Natwar on the Iran issue. We gave him a paper on our position,” he said.

Late tonight, Natwar returned to the Prime Minister’s house. Sources said the visit was unrelated to the scandal as the defence top brass ' minister Pranab Mukherjee and at least two service chiefs ' were also there.

The meeting could be linked to the Left’s protest against the war games with the US in Bengal but the sources did not confirm this.

The proposed probe into the Volcker report is being seen as a “halfway” measure to counter the BJP’s high-pitched campaign in the run-up to the winter session.

Congress sources hoped it would act as a “pressure point” on Natwar to offer to resign till he is absolved instead of forcing the Prime Minister’s hand. “This way, he (Natwar) can ensure an honourable exit without causing more damage to the government,” a source said.

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