Times 2

Manmohan denies knowledge of cash-for-nuke votes

By Penny MacRae

NEW DELHI, March 19 (AFP) - India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has denied any knowledge of alleged vote-buying by his embattled Congress government to win a crucial 2008 confidence vote.
An uproar over the cash-for-votes claims, set out in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, has led to opposition calls for Singh's resignation and comes as the government struggles against a mountain of corruption scandals.

"I have not authorised anyone to purchase any votes. I am not aware of any acts of purchasing votes," Singh told a conference in New Delhi. "I'm not at all involved in any of these transactions." The 78-year-old premier has been under intense pressure as he tries to shrug off the corruption scandals that have badly undermined his "Mr Clean" reputation.

Later, Singh reiterated his denials in parliament, saying the government "rejects the allegation absolutely" that it was involved in bribery. But opposition protests forced parliament to adjourn for a second day as lawmakers demanded that Singh's government resign over the allegations.

Protests over the slew of scandals have virtually paralysed parliament's operations. The leader of the country's Communist Party, Gurudas Dasgupta, said the new WikiLeaks allegations pointed to a "murder of democracy".

The alleged vote-buying incident occurred shortly before Singh narrowly survived the confidence vote over a controversial deal to allow India to buy US nuclear reactors and fuel. Pushing through the deal, which ended energy-hungry India's civil nuclear isolation, has been billed as Singh's greatest political triumph.
US diplomatic messages released by WikiLeaks to The Hindu newspaper reported that Nachiketa Kapur, identified as an aide to prominent Congress figure Satish Sharma, allegedly said $2.5 million had bought the votes of four MPs.

A US embassy staffer in New Delhi was shown "two chests containing cash" and was also told that $25 million was "lying around" to ensure the government would survive the vote, according to the leaked cables.

The 2008 vote has long been the subject of corruption claims. At the time, opposition MPs in parliament waved wads of money they alleged the government was using to try to bribe them. Singh told the conference he had "serious doubt about (the) veracity of the diplomatic dispatches".

But he added the allegations highlighted the need for "strong, purposeful electoral reforms" to make the murky funding of India's political parties "more transparent and accountable". "There should be no doubt about government's determination to root out corruption and to clean our political system," he added.
Singh's statements came ahead of a slew of state elections next month. Candidates often woo voters with money and other incentives during poll time.

Singh's Congress-led coalition was re-elected in 2009, but has since become mired in scandals ranging from the cut-price sale of telecoms licences to graft surrounding last year's Commonwealth Games.
Both Kapur and Sharma, a close associate of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, on Thursday protested their innocence over the cash-for-votes claims.

The US government has declined to comment on the cables, saying it is not its policy to make statements on classified material.

Pakistan to snub US meeting on Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, March 19 (AFP) - Pakistan has said it will boycott a key meeting on Afghanistan's security in protest at a US drone attack that killed 35 people, as fragile relations between the allies again faltered.
A foreign ministry statement said US Ambassador Cameron Munter was summoned and told that Pakistan would not attend the March 26 meeting in Brussels with officials from Washington and Kabul, in response to Thursday's drone strike.

The move came after Pakistan's civilian and military leaders condemned the strike against a militant hideout in the North Waziristan tribal region, demanding an apology and explanation from the United States.

Intelligence sources in Peshawar said 12 Pakistani Taliban militants were killed in the attack.
But civilians and police were also among the dead when missiles ploughed into a compound in Datta Khel, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Miranshah, the main town in tribal North Waziristan, security officials said.

The trilateral annual talks, in which ministers and other top officials outline progress on issues such as the war in Afghanistan -- which shares a border with Pakistan -- had been planned for last month in Washington.

But the US postponed those discussions after failed attempts to secure the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was accused of double murder and had been held in Lahore.

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