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U.S. senator wants hearing on possible F-16 sale to Pakistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator John McCain on Thursday urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold a hearing on the possible sale of Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, as more lawmakers expressed concern about the deal.

U.S. Senator John McCain attends a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters he was concerned about the timing of the Obama administration’s decision to approve the sale of the fighter jets to Pakistan, and the potential consequences for U.S. relations with India.

“I would rather have seen it kicked over into the next administration,” McCain said.

A hearing would help senators decide what to do about the proposed sale, he said, noting he was very “conflicted.”

The U.S. government announced on Feb. 12 that it had approved the sale to Pakistan of up to eight additional F-16 fighter jets, as well as radars and other equipment in a deal valued at $699 million.

The deal drew immediate criticism from India.

Separately, U.S. Senator Rand Paul said Thursday he had introduced a resolution of disapproval seeking to halt U.S. arms sales to Pakistan’s government. If passed, the measure would stop the F-16 sale.

U.S. lawmakers have until March 12 to block the sale. Such action is rare since deals are usually well vetted before any formal notification, and it remained unclear if lawmakers would thwart the deal.

State Department spokesman David McKeeby said the proposed sale of F-16s would assist Pakistan’s counter terrorism and counterinsurgency operations and was in the interests of Pakistan, the United States, NATO and the region.

“Pakistan’s current F-16s have proven critical to the success of these operations to date. These operations reduce the ability of militants to use Pakistani territory as a safe haven for terrorism and a base of support for the insurgency in Afghanistan,” he said.

McKeeby said the department was aware of congressional concerns and would continue to consult and engage with lawmakers.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker allowed the Obama administration to proceed with the deal, but said he would not approve using U.S. funds to pay for the planes through the foreign military financing (FMF) program.

Corker told Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter earlier this month that he was concerned about Pakistan’s ties to the Haqqani network, a militant group that U.S. officials have said is behind attacks in Afghanistan.

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman