NEW DELHI

An Indian cabinet committee gave its approval Wednesday to a long-delayed deal for the purchase of 36 fighter jets from France's Dassault, as the country looks to counter China's growing military clout.

A senior Defence Ministry official said Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Cabinet Committee on Security had given its green light to the multibillion-dollar Rafale jet purchase at a meeting in New Delhi and that the defense ministers of both France and India would ink the agreement on Friday.

"The deal was approved at the meeting in the evening," the official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

"It will now be formally signed by Indian and French defense ministers on Sept. 23 in New Delhi," the senior official told AFP.

The official said that other details including the exact amount and formalities "will become clear after the signing event."

French President Francois Hollande has asked his defense minister to visit India, the presidency has said.

In a brief statement, the presidency did not confirm the deal for the jets, but said Jean-Yves Le Drian would go to New Delhi "for a visit agreed in principle with Prime Minister Modi" when Hollande met him at the G20 summit in China earlier this month.

There was no immediate comment from Dassault but a report by the Press Trust of India put the purchase price at around €7.9 billion (US $8.8 billion).

Recent local media reports have said the Indian government has agreed to pay around $8.8 billion for the long-delayed deal.

The purchase of the Rafale jets, to replace part of the country's ageing Air Force fleet, was first mooted in 2012 but has faced major delays and obstacles over the last four years.

India entered exclusive negotiations on buying 126 Rafale jets four years ago, but the number of planes was scaled back in tortuous negotiations over the cost and assembly of the planes in India.

Modi announced on a visit to Paris last year that his government had agreed to buy the jets as India looks to modernize its Soviet-era military and keep up with neighboring Pakistan and China.

But the deal continued to be held back by disagreements such as New Delhi's insistence that arms makers invest a percentage of the value of any major deal in India, known as the offset clause.

Hollande again pushed the deal on a visit to India in January, when he was Modi's guest for the Republic Day celebrations, but officials privately acknowledged that the price had become a sticking point.

In an interview ahead of that trip, Holllande said that India needed new planes and "France has shown that it has the world's best aircraft".

The growing military clout of its giant neighbor China has increased India's need to upgrade its military.

Gulshan Luthra, from the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and
Analyses, said the planes would deliver an important boost to India's Air Force.

"The fundamental thing is the Air Force does not have new aircraft, the old
ones need to be replaced and Rafale is a spearhead," Luthra said. "It has to be a spearhead and we needed it in yesteryears, not even today.

"Unfortunately, we have been very late on this deal. But this has been chosen and it's a very good aircraft."

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