India's PM claims U.N. report blaming one of ministers in corruption has no evidence

India's prime minister said Tuesday that a U.N. report about corruption in the Iraqi oil-for-food program provides no proof that one of his ministers profited from it, but promised a thorough investigation into the charges. "There are unsubstantiated references in the report ... There is no evidence provided," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters. But "we are determined to get to the bottom of it."

On Monday, India's Foreign Minister Natwar Singh was stripped of his post and made minister without portfolio after being implicated by an independent U.N. inquiry headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

The inquiry also named the ruling Congress party and scores of Indian private companies among thousands of politicians and companies worldwide as the illegal beneficiaries of the oil-for-food program.

The allegations have whipped up a political storm in India, providing fodder for the opposition to attack the Congress party and government.

In an apparent bid at damage control, Singh's government on Monday appointed retired Supreme Court chief justice R. S. Pathak to investigate the role of Natwar Singh, the Congress party and others.

The prime minister said that even though he considers Volcker's report weak in facts, the appointment of Pathak is "to get to the truth of the matter."

Volcker's report has "a few tables and one or two names. One is Congress, the other is Natwar Singh. Anybody can write names. That doesn't prove what is the truth," he said.

The US$64 billion (Ђ54 billion) oil-for-food program let Iraq sell limited and then unlimited quantities of oil between 1996 and 2003. The program stipulated that most of the money be used to help ordinary Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

However, it allowed Saddam to choose the buyers of Iraqi oil and the sellers of humanitarian goods.

According to the Volcker report, released Oct. 27, Saddam corrupted the program by awarding contracts to, and getting kickbacks from, favored buyers.

It says more than 2,200 prominent companies and politicians worldwide colluded with his regime to skim some US$1.8 billion (Ђ1.5 billion) from the program, according to the AP.

The Volcker report rattled reputations around the world but India's Natwar Singh is its first political casualty.


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