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India defends diplomat embroiled in South Africa's 'Gutpagate'

May 22, 2013 17:27 IST

After a top Indian diplomat was accused of manipulation by South Africa to obtain permission for landing of an aircraft chartered by a well-connected Indian family at a military air base in Pretoria, India has said there was proper authorisation and some wedding guests on board the plane had invitations for bilateral engagements.

"The senior Indian officials and their delegations were in South Africa for bilateral engagements with the Free State government," the High Commission said in a statement.

"The visit of Shivpal Singh Yadav, minister of public works and irrigation (Uttar Pradesh government), and the delegation accompanying the minister, was an official visit, which took place at the invitation of the Free State government," it said.

"A memorandum of intent was signed between the Free State and Uttar Pradesh government for a broad based co-operation covering economic development, irrigation and agriculture sectors," the statement said.

A controversy -- dubbed as ‘Guptagate’ -- erupted and made global headlines when the plane chartered by the well-connected Gupta family, carrying nearly 200 guests from India, landed at Waterkloof Air Force base in Pretoria on April 29, allegedly without proper authorization, to attend a lavish wedding. The incident also caused an outcry over the breach of security at a national key point.

The billionaire Gupta family, which has close ties to President Jacob Zuma, celebrated the wedding of Vega Gupta, 23, to India-born Aaskash Jahajgarhia at Sun City on May 3.

The wedding -- billed as 'the South African wedding of the century' -- also had Bollywood actors and singers flying in for an extravagant celebration.

The High Commission's reaction came after a probe into the controversial landing implicated a senior Indian High Commission official for "name-dropping" and "manipulation" and absolved Zuma.

The High Commission also said that "authorisation for landing was provided to the mission by the South African Air Force on April 9". The statement contradicts the interim probe report by the South African government that the plane had landed there "irregularly".

Releasing the findings of the interim investigation on Sunday, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe has said one of the findings was that the landing of a chartered commercial aircraft was a direct result of "manipulation of processes" and names had been "dropped" in the course of events.

Radebe indicated that there had been no official note from the Indian High Commission to the Department of International Relations, as was the protocol, but rather direct communication between an unnamed Indian mission official and officers at the Waterkloof Air Force command post, allegedly dropping the name of Zuma to secure permission to land.

Zuma has been repeatedly accused of being very close to the influential Gupta family, originally from India, although they have denied using any such influence.

Radebe said the clearance for the landing of the aircraft was "based on false information and abuse of privileges, the combination of which resulted in the manipulation of the process by various persons who shared a common purpose and acted in concert".

But the High Commission said the initial request was made on February 28 because the chartered flight was expected to carry several ministers from state governments as well as the central government and senior political figures from India.

"Several senior ministers and dignitaries from the government of Uttar Pradesh, which is the largest state in India with a total population of 200 million, were actually on the flight that landed on the morning of April 30," it said.

"The request was made with a view to ensuring appropriate security arrangements and courtesies for the visiting dignitaries in accordance with normal practice," it said.

The mission said since it was a military matter, a formal request was made by the defence advisor at the High Commission to the chief of defence of foreign relations in the SANDF.

"This is the standard and official channel of communication prescribed for communications by defence advisors based in South Africa. Copies of these communications are not usually sent to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation. The mission's request was made a full two months in advance from the date of the scheduled landing of plane and all requested information was provided to the concerned authorities," the High Commission said.

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