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Ex-Pak Air force chief accuses Musharraf of 'kickbacks' in jet deal

By Rezaul H Laskar in Islamabad
April 23, 2009 23:00 IST
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Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been accused by a former air force chief of "ruining" a $ 1.2 billion deal for acquiring surveillance aircraft from Sweden's Saab firm for "possible kickbacks".

Former Air Chief Marshal Saadat Kaleem has claimed that despite the Pakistan Air Force's opposition, Musharraf put pressure on the force to modify a contract to reduce the number of surveillance aircraft to be purchased from Saab from six to four and to include two Chinese systems.

The contract originally envisaged the purchase of six Saab airborne warning and surveillance systems and a Saab 2000 aircraft for VIP flights. He told The News that Musharraf "personally exerted pressure on him" to modify the contract.

Kaleem said he was opposed to this because of objections raised by PAF experts on technical grounds. He said after he retired in March 2006, the contract with the Swedish firm was modified to include two Chinese systems.

"It was done with mala fide intentions," Kaleem said, adding such modifications were usually made due to "some motivation factor".

The PAF had cautioned that the Chinese system was inferior to the Swedish one and that the two systems were incompatible. One of the systems was superfluous and the mix of two different technologies is bound to create more problems instead of serving the purpose for which the project was conceived, he said.

Kaleem said the two systems could not be integrated and it would be better to cancel the Swedish contract altogether and go in for the Chinese option.

The Swedish system used an electronically scanned antenna while the Chinese one had a rotating dome antenna. The former is superior to the latter, he explained. The PAF had initially decided to buy the Swedish system following recommendations of its operations branch, which was not in favour of modifying the contract to include the Chinese technology due to technical objections.

Kaleem recalled that Musharraf once called him to the Army House and directed him to modify the contract to include two Chinese surveillance systems. When Kaleem opposed this, Musharraf reportedly snubbed him by saying, "What is the problem with you?"

The former PAF chief said he had told Musharraf that it would be a disadvantage to have two technologies but the former military ruler wanted to award a $ 250 million contract to a Chinese company, citing "strategic relations" with Beijing.

Kaleem said he had pointed out that the PAF was already procuring defence equipment worth 6 to 7 billion dollars from Chinese firms and another contract of $ 250 million would not make much difference.

Kaleem said he had argued that even if the Chinese system was provided free of cost, it would be a burden on the PAF because it would have to train its pilots, give technical training to others and create a separate specialised team of experts to deal with it.

He said he was prepared to appear before any commission to recount what he had gone through on the issue. The PAF had been looking for an airborne surveillance system for long.

Negotiations between Saab-Ericsson and Pakistani authorities on the venture codenamed "Project Horizon" continued for over two-and-half years. On October 15, 2005, the $ 1.2 billion contract for six surveillance aircrafts and a Saab 2000 jet for VIP flights was signed.

The Pakistan government also negotiated and signed a loan agreement with a Swedish government agency to finance the project. Later, the number of systems to be purchased from Saab was reduced from 6 to 4 on Musharraf's orders, the newspaper reported.

A source said Kaleem favoured the Swedish company but the charge was denied by him. Kaleem said the Swedish system was the best available choice for the PAF. Kaleem, however, admitted the Saab office in Islamabad was located in his house, which had been rented to the Swedish company after his retirement. When asked if this was not a clear case of conflict of interest, Kaleem said it was not.

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Rezaul H Laskar in Islamabad
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