(Repeats Wednesday's story with no changes to text)
* Afghan military aircraft grounded for want of parts,
* India considering plan to pay to get them fixed
* Plan comes as Russia's influence in Afghanistan grows
* Proposal likely to irk Indian rival Pakistan
By Tommy Wilkes
KABUL, March 22 India is considering whether to
pay for repairs to grounded helicopters and transport planes
from Afghanistan's air force, signalling a willingness to step
up military assistance for Kabul that has irked Pakistan in the
India estimates it would cost close to $50 million for new
parts and repairs to 11 grounded Soviet-made Mi-35 helicopters
and seven transport aircraft, after sending a team of experts to
assess the Afghan air force's needs last year, the Indian
ambassador to Kabul told Reuters.
Afghanistan has repeatedly asked India to increase military
assistance, as it struggles to fight Afghan Taliban insurgents
who have taken swathes of territory since most foreign troops
left the country in late 2014.
New Delhi's readiness to provide more military help, while
limited, underlines its desire to help Kabul as other regional
powers including Russia and China look to increase their
influence in Afghanistan.
"We have been looking at the scale of the challenge the ANSF
(Afghan National Security Forces) faces, particularly in one
segment, close air support," ambassador Manpreet Vohra said in
an interview in Kabul this week.
"We are trying to see how we can help. They have a large
number of attack helicopters and transport aircraft grounded for
want of spares, for expiry of certification," he said.
India will decide whether to approve the proposal after
final costing is done within a few months.
Most of Afghanistan's small air force dates from the Soviet
era, but sanctions against Russia mean Western donors that fund
the military cannot pay to get grounded aircraft flying again.
India is not bound by such restrictions, but aside from the
transfer in 2015 to Afghanistan of four attack helicopters, New
Delhi has been reluctant to commit direct military support,
saying it does not have the resources and prefers to help Kabul
with development aid.
Under the agreement with Afghanistan, India would pay for
the transportation of the aircraft to Russia or other former
Soviet states where the planes were manufactured and must be
fixed according to licencing agreements, as well as for new
parts and repairs, Vohra said.
The ambassador is due to meet the Afghan air chief in the
next few weeks.
Russia's federal service for military-technical cooperation
did not respond to a request for comment.
India enjoys close relations with Afghanistan, and both
accuse common neighbour Pakistan of not doing enough to stop
Islamist militants operating on its territory.
Pakistan has previously warned that India should not be
allowed to use Afghan soil to create instability in Pakistan.
India has been one of Afghanistan's biggest allies in the
war against the Taliban, training thousands of security
personnel, but was not included in the first round of recent
Russia-led talks to reboot a stalled peace process.
Afghan and U.S. officials are increasingly worried that any
deepening of ties between Russia and the Taliban could
complicate the security situation, and analysts say India risks
being sidelined in future talks.
Moscow has said its contacts with the Taliban are aimed at
ensuring the safety of its citizens and encouraging peace talks.
Russian government officials have said that Afghan troops,
backed by U.S. special forces, have not done enough to stem the
spread of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, according to
Afghan and U.S. officials.
Vohra said India would back Afghanistan at the next round of
talks, scheduled for April, in arguing that the Taliban remained
the biggest threat to the country.
He said India remained a close partner of Afghanistan's,
pointing to an additional $1 billion aid pledge announced last
year and the completion of a nearly $300 million hydroelectric
(Additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in MOSCOW and Mirwais
Harooni in KABUL; Editing by Mike Collett-White)