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Natwar Singh relieved of External Affairs portfolio

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The External Affairs Minister, Mr Natwar Singh, leaving the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh's residence in New Delhi on Monday. — Rajeev Bhatt

New Delhi , Nov 7

THE Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, today relieved Mr Natwar Singh from the responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs following the controversy over Volcker committee report naming him as one of the non-contractual beneficiaries in the United Nation's Oil-for-Food programme for Iraq.

Mr Singh, however, will remain in Government as Minister without portfolio.

An official release issued by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in the evening said that the External Affairs Minister, Mr K. Natwar Singh, today met the Prime Minister and requested to be relieved of the External Affairs portfolio.

"The Prime Minister has accepted his request and has written to the President that Mr Natwar Singh will be Minister without portfolio in the Union Council of Ministers," the release said.

For now, the Prime Minister is understood to have kept the External Affairs portfolio with himself.

The decision to shift Mr Natwar Singh from the foreign office follows a meeting he had with the Prime Minister this evening which was preceded by discussions that the Congress President, Ms Sonia Gandhi, had with senior party leaders.

Earlier in the day, the Government appointed a judicial commission headed by the former Supreme Court Chief Justice, Mr R.S. Pathak, to inquire into findings of the Volcker report.

Making the announcement, the Prime Minister's Media Advisor, Dr Sanjaya Baru said the scope of the inquiry and the terms of reference would be announced shortly. Mr Pathak, a former judge of the International Court of Justice at The Hague "will head the inquiry into matters relating to the report of the Independent Inquiry Committee (headed by Mr Paul Volcker) appointed by the Secretary General of the UN to inquire into the UN oil for food programme," an official release said.

On Sunday, the Government had announced the appointment of a special envoy, Mr Virendra Dayal, to verify the allegations made in the Volcker report which implicates Mr Singh and Congress party as non-contractual beneficiaries in the pay offs.

Talking to the media Dr Baru made it clear that the tasks entrusted to Mr Pathak and Mr Dayal were independent in nature.

While Mr Dayal has been authorised to travel to UN to collect information as "unverified references" have been made in the Volcker report to Congress Party, Mr Singh and other Indian companies, Mr Pathak would conduct a judicial inquiry, he said.

The continuation of Mr Natwar Singh as External Affairs Minister had become untenable for two reasons.

One, the judicial probe ordered by the Government and second, the recent statements by Mr Singh in the last few days where he was perceived to be taking a position different from the official position of the Government on matters of foreign policy.

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