NEW DELHI : French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Friday that talks over a $12-billion deal to sell Rafale jets to India were progressing well and that a new bilateral pact would underwrite the deal. India initially set a target of the end of last year to conclude the purchase of the 126 aircraft, one of the biggest ever defence deals, but deadlines have repeatedly slipped. With India set to go to the polls for national elections in the first half of next year, experts believe that the chances of a speedy conclusion are dwindling.

 "I will not be announcing the date for signing the contract but I would like you to know that the negotiations are going well and I have full confidence," Le Drian told reporters during a trip to New Delhi.

He added that a "framework Indo-French inter-governmental agreement for this contract" would be signed which would "provide all the necessary guarantees of the French state".

Dassault Aviation beat off stiff competition from six rivals from Russia, the US and Europe last year when India selected its state-of-the-art Rafale jet.

The huge but complicated contract would see the manufacture of the first 18 planes in France with the remainder to be produced under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a state-run Indian aerospace behemoth.

Dassault is reported to have reservations about the ability of HAL to produce the planes and its own financial liabilities.

The group said in February that it hoped to sign its first export contract this year for the aircraft, which has been in action in Afghanistan, Libya and Mali most recently.