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Web sting ensnares top Indian officials

A feisty, year-old Internet media company disguised its reporters as weapons dealers, gave them piles of cash and dispatched them to expose corruption in India's political and military establishment.

The result was hours of videotape that captured defense officials accepting bribes for arms contracts _ an expose leading to the resignations of two Cabinet ministers and calls for the government to step down.

The scandal has set off screaming matches in Parliament and prompted Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Friday to promise an inquiry to "clean up the dirt." The furor forced U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to cancel a visit to Parliament.

"Our job was to blow the whistle on corruption in India's defense procurement. We wanted to nail them down," said Tarun J. Tejpal, 37, the chief executive officer of the media company Tehelka.com.

His company's upstart Web site, which runs an eclectic collection of news, political intrigue, literature and sports in English, has hit a nerve among Indians.

Since it broke the scandal on Tuesday, the site has been flooded with 1,000 e-mails a day and millions of hits. Reactions to the expose have ranged from euphoria among its readers to calls for its young reporters to be arrested.

"I'm proud to be an Indian today! We've shown the corrupt underbelly of India that they can no longer take us for granted," said Adnan Adeeb in a letter to Tehelka.com.

The company was launched in May by interviewing a key figure in a cricket match-fixing scandal.

Then in August, Tehelka.com began its undercover operation into India's defense purchases.

Tehelka.com reporters Aniruddha Bahal, 25, and Mathew Samuel, in his early 30s, spent months pretending to be defense contractors and pushing a fake $870,000 deal for hand-held thermal cameras and other equipment. They secretly filmed the transactions.

"Eight months into the investigation we are still astonished at how incredibly high the ladder goes we are still astonished at how blinding the greed was, that two rank amateurs with close to no knowledge of defense hardware, hawking a patently absurd product, could go so far as to slice open an entire industry of high corruption," said Tejpal.

The scandal rattled Vajpayee's government, which took office in 1998 promising clean government. The opposition has called for him to resign.

The first head to roll was Bangaru Laxman, the president of Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party. He resigned Tuesday after Tehelka.com made public videotapes of him accepting $2,175.

On Thursday, Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee resigned from the Cabinet and withdrew her party from the governing coalition, saying she was taking a stand against corruption.

Later that day, Defense Minister George Fernandes resigned but denied any wrongdoing, saying the allegations were aimed at undermining national security.

Some have questioned the ethics of the investigation.

Laxman denied that the journalists identified themselves to him as defense contractors or discussed weapons sales. He said they were presented as businessmen and that accepting money for the party is not illegal in India. He said he gave the money to the party treasurer.

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