Austria's Greens and far-right join forces to probe Eurofighter deal

FILE PHOTO: The first Austrian military jet fighter "Eurofighter Typhoon" lands on the military airport in the small Styrian village of Zeltweg, Austria, July 12, 2007. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian opposition parties setting up a parliamentary inquiry into the state's order for Eurofighter Typhoon jets 14 years ago have said they will seek to determine whether any kickbacks were paid to win the contract and to identify any officials who might have profited. The parliamentary inquiry formally announced on Friday by the Greens and far-right Freedom Party (FPO) comes just a week after Austrian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into allegations of fraud against Airbus and the Eurofighter consortium, based on a complaint by the defence ministry.

The four-nation Eurofighter consortium comprises BAE Systems, Italy's Leonardo and Airbus, which represents Germany and Spain's industrial interests in the project.

The defence ministry has alleged that in 2003 Airbus and the Eurofighter consortium illegally charged nearly 10 percent of the purchase price of 1.96 billion euros for so-called offset deals.

Such deals, which involve work being given to local companies, were part of the agreement, but their cost should have been reported separately, the ministry has said. [nL8N1G91LA]

Airbus has denied the accusations. [nL8N1G10LW]

"All skeletons in the closet will be brought out," FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache said at a news conference in Vienna on Friday. "It is our job to clarify political responsibilities." All of the country's leading parties have been involved in the Eurofighter deal's long history. The initial contract was first agreed under a coalition between the conservative People's Party and the FPO, and then modified under a Social Democratic chancellor.

The latest parliamentary probe is the second to investigate the circumstances of the original order for 18 aircraft, with opponents saying that other makes of aircraft could have been bought for much less money.

The first commission of inquiry, set up under Social Democratic Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer in 2006, explicitly sought for reasons to cancel the contract.

But in 2007 Defence Minister Norbert Darabos, also a social democrat, agreed on a settlement with Eurofighter to reduce the order to 15 jets.

The new investigation will examine the terms of that settlement and seek to claim back any monies it finds to have been wrongly paid out, said Green lawmaker Peter Pilz, the driving force behind the new inquiry.

($1=0.9471 euros)

(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Greg Mahlich)

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