Indian investigators for Italy to probe chopper deal

Two Indian federal investigators will travel to Italy this week to meet with prosecutors probing allegations that the Italian company Finmeccanica paid bribes to secure a 560 million euro ($750 million) deal to sell 12 helicopters to India, a government official said on Sunday.

Dharini Mishra, a spokeswoman for India's Central Bureau of Investigation, said a senior investigating officer and a law officer would travel to Italy, but she declined to give other details. Indian media reports said the CBI team would leave for Italy on Monday.

One official each from India's defense and external affairs ministries will accompany the CBI team, the Press Trust of India news agency said. They are expected to act as coordinators to the Indian investigators.

India's Defense Ministry this past week asked the CBI, India's equivalent of the United States' FBI, to investigate the deal after Finmeccanica's chief executive was arrested in Milan on charges he paid bribes to obtain the contract. Giuseppe Orsi, who has been jailed, denies wrongdoing.

The ministry, meanwhile, put the deal to purchase the 12 helicopters on hold and sent a notice to Finmeccanica's AgustaWestland helicopter division seeking cancellation of the agreement. The company was given a week to respond to the notice.

AgustaWestland said in a statement Saturday that it would reply within a week. It also said it was "confident" it would demonstrate "full compliance" with the law.

India signed the contract with AgustaWestland in February 2010. Three of the 12 helicopters were delivered in December.

New Delhi says the contract includes an integrity clause against bribery or the use of undue influence. Under the terms of the clause, if any person or the company is found to have bribed officials or made any kind of payoff, the agreement can be scrapped and the firm blacklisted.

India has been mired in the past over allegations that a company had paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to Indian officials. In the 1980s, then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's government collapsed over charges that the Swedish gun manufacturer Bofors AB paid bribes to supply Howitzer field guns to the Indian army.

Following the Bofors scandal, India banned middlemen in all defense deals.

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