New revelations on military helicopters deal: Deliberately overpriced by close to $20m -Govt duped into buying same model earlier rejected by former army chief Name of Merlin International crops up yet again THISDAY REPORTER Dar es Salaam IT has now been revealed that the Ministry of Defence and National Service paid a vastly inflated price for the same helicopters it had earlier officially rejected as being unfit for military use. According to latest THISDAY findings, the ministry paid more than $9m (approx. 11bn/-) for each of the four Agusta Bell choppers, which was almost double the actual unit price of around $4.7m (approx. 6bn/-), going by prevailing market prices. This means that defence ministry officials squandered a total of $18.25m (about 22bn/-) in overpaying for the helicopters under dubious circumstances. Government sources familiar with the deal have now informed THISDAY that the Agusta Bell helicopter model 412 EP bought by the ministry a couple of years ago are soft-skin, civilian aircraft and not standard military choppers. The helicopter model and specifications bought for the army is similar to the one currently being used by the police force, a government aviation expert said. The Minister for Defence and National Service, Prof. Juma Kapuya, was not immediately available for comment yesterday to respond to the latest findings with regard to the controversial defence contracts. It is understood that the then Chief of Defence Forces (CDF), General Robert Mboma, had earlier rejected the Agusta Bell helicopters on grounds that they were designed for commercial flights and not military operations. General Mboma, a former commanding officer of the Tanzania Peoples Defence Forces (TPDF) Air Wing, is said to have preferred the French-made Cougar AS 532 helicopters, which are described as being more appropriate for military use. According to our sources, it was on General Mbomas recommendation that TPDF in 1998 entered into an agreement with a Dar es Salaam-based firm for the supply of the Cougar helicopters, manufactured by the Eurocopter company in France. However, unexpected delays cropped up and the tender was finally wrestled away from the local company that had initially won the contract, said one of our sources. At this point, it has now been disclosed that another city-based firm - Merlin International Limited - somehow manoeuvred its way into the contract for the supply of the helicopters to TPDF. But in a surprise move, after succeeding in elbowing out the company that had won the tender in the first place, Merlin is understood to have later supplied to the government the same Agusta Bell civilian choppers that had previously been rejected by the army. Merlin International Limited is the same company linked to the supply of the controversial $41m (approx. 52bn/-) military radar system, the sale of a $40m (50.7bn/-) Gulfstream presidential jet to the government, and the supply of over 600 IVECO military trucks for over 90bn/-. The companys majority shareholder, businessman Shailesh Vithlani, is reported to have worked closely with a network of influential local partners, including high-ranking government officials both current and retired, to secure the lucrative defence contracts. The then Prevention of Corruption Bureau (PCB) and Britains Serious Fraud Office (SFO) have been separately investigating the radar deal in the wake of revelations that $12m (approx. 15bn/-) worth of illegal kickbacks were paid to several top officials to approve the controversial deal. The money, said to have been secretly paid by the UK arms manufacturer company BAE Systems into a Swiss bank account, has allegedly been linked to Vithlani and other members of his local network.