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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 that has clouded his trip to New Delhi.

Cameron arrived in India on Monday 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 arrested the boss of AgustaWestland's parent company Finmeccanica last week during an investigation into bribes allegedly paid to secure the $750-million Indian government contract in 2010.

Finmeccanica Tuesday insisted it had acted "correctly" and complied fully with Indian law, amid allegations the deal was won through bribes of up to $66 million.

Press reports indicate one of the accused middlemen is based in London, while the 12 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 keen 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 eager 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.

"Britain wants to be your partner of choice," Cameron said during a factory visit in commercial capital Mumbai on Monday.

Harsh Pant, a expert on Indian foreign relations at King's College university in London, said that Britain and India were bound by their history and large British-Indian population, but that New Delhi was destined to remain aloof.

"India has never been about close relationships with any country," he said, referring to its embrace of the non-aligned movement. "They will never be the sort of partners that some countries expect them to be or want them to be."

In moves designed to appeal to his hosts, Cameron has announced a new same-day visa service for Indian business people and stressed that British universities remain welcoming places for Indian students.

He has played cricket to highlight the countries' common love of the game and joked and spoke with 400 students and Bollywood mega-star Aamir Khan on Tuesday at a New Delhi girls' college.

Singh thanked Cameron for his "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 said.

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.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130219/british-pm-offers-cooperate-india-graft-probe-2