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Indian defense minister in Paris amid jet deal controversy

FILE - In this June 19, 2015 file photo, French Capt. Benoit Planche performs with a Rafale single seat jet aircraft during its demonstration flight at the Paris Air Show, in Le Bourget airport, north of Paris. India's defense minister is travelling Thursday Oct. 11, 2018 to Paris amid controversy over a multi-billion dollar deal in which France will sell 36 fighter jets to India. (AP Photo/Francois Mori,File)

PARIS (AP) — India’s defense minister is travelling to Paris to speak with the French government amid controversy over a multi-billion dollar deal to sell 36 fighter jets to India.

The 2016 deal was for India to buy Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault. The leader of India’s main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, has accused Narendra Modi’s government of buying the aircraft at nearly three times the price being negotiated when his party was in power before Modi became prime minister in 2014.

Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who will meet her French counterpart, Florence Parly, on Thursday, has refuted the claim.

Gandhi also accused Modi’s government of favoring the company owned by industrialist Anil Ambani, Reliance Group, when choosing an Indian partner for Dassault.

India’s government has denied any wrongdoing.

Dassault Aviation said in a statement Wednesday that it “has freely chosen to make a partnership with India’s Reliance Group.”

The French company explains that it has committed to side deals in India worth 50 percent of the value of the jet purchases. In order to deliver those side deals, it has decided to create a joint-venture with Reliance Group.

The controversy has intensified following comments last month by former French President Francois Hollande — who was in charge when the deal was signed in 2016 — suggesting France had no say in selecting the Indian company.

“Hollande knocks a hole in these explanations,” said journalist Antton Rouget of news site Mediapart, who interviewed the ex-president. “The choice to go with the Reliance group was imposed on the French by whom? By the Indian government.”

Gandhi appears to be bent on making the Rafale deal an election issue ahead of the general vote in early 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his rightwing Hindu nationalist party are the front-runners in the race.

Gandhi has been pressing the government to reveal the exact price of the Rafale aircraft deal, claiming that French President Emmanuel Macron told him in March that there was no secrecy clause.

The French Embassy in New Delhi immediately issued a statement saying that a security agreement bound the two countries to protect classified information.

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AP Writer Ashok Sharma in Delhi contributed to this report.

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