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British PM offers to cooperate with India on graft probe

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

British Prime Minister David Cameron promised full cooperation on Tuesday with an Indian investigation into alleged corruption in a helicopter deal, an issue which has clouded his trip to New Delhi.

Cameron arrived in India on Monday with what he called the biggest-ever British overseas business delegation, pushing for better access to the booming market of 1.2 billion people and greater trade.

While keen to persuade India of the merits of the part-British Eurofighter jets, he has been dogged by another aviation deal involving the Anglo-Italian helicopter maker AgustaWestland.

Italian authorities made arrests last week during an investigation into bribes allegedly paid to secure the $750 million Indian government contract in 2010. Press leaks indicate one of the accused middlemen is based in London.

The helicopters are being made in southwest England.

"We will respond to any request for information. I am glad that the Italian authorities are looking into this issue in detail," Cameron told a press conference with Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh.

Singh, eager to show his graft-plagued government taking action ahead of national elections next year, said he had conveyed "our very serious concerns regarding allegations that unethical means were used" to secure the deal.

"I have sought the full assistance of the UK in this case," he added.

The scandal has been an unwanted distraction for Cameron who is eager to forge a new partnership with Britain's former colony, believing their historical links should provide a foundation for a closer partnership.

Like other Western leaders who arrive eyeing the country's enviable economic growth rates, he is keen for British companies to benefit from India's vast investment in infrastructure, health, energy and defence.

Executives in his delegation from the worlds of banking, insurance and retail have also been encouraged by the Indian government's moves late last year to drop some barriers to foreign investors.

Cameron has targeted a doubling of annual bilateral trade with India, from 11.5 billion pounds ($17.8 billion) in 2010 to 23 billion pounds by the time he faces re-election in 2015.

In a bid to address Indian concerns about his government's drive to slash immigration to Britain, Cameron announced on Monday a new same-day visa service for Indian business people.

He also stressed again on Tuesday that there was "no limit" on the number of students who can study at British universities providing they have an offer and an English-language qualification.

Singh thanked Cameron for "strong personal commitment to India" -- this is his second visit since becoming prime minister in 2010 -- and said he had invited increased British investments in India.

"We expressed satisfaction with progress in our economic engagement, while stressing the need to do more to take the relationship to a new level," he added.

In 2010 Cameron had given heavy backing during talks with Indian leaders to the part-British Eurofighter consortium, which was competing for a $12 billion contract to sell 126 fighter jets to the air force.

Last January, India chose France's Dassault Aviation for exclusive negotiations but the deal has still not been signed.

The first allegations of wrongdoing in the AgustaWestland deal emerged last year, but India's government has said it was unable to gain information from Italian or British governments about the investigation.

Cameron is to meet Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan later Tuesday at a women's college in the capital. He will also hold talks with President Pranab Mukherjee.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130219/british-pm-offers-cooperate-india-graft-probe-0