GABORONE, Botswana — The Malawi government and Indian defense equipment manufacturer Ashok Leyland are reportedly close to signing a deal for the sale of up to 500 military and civilian vehicles to replace the aging operational fleet of the Malawi Defence Force (MDF).

According to local newspaper "Nyasa Times," the MDF is seeking personnel carriers, light trucks, fuel tankers, field ambulances, water bowsers, buses and other logistics vehicles to replace its Tata-made military fleet, which was also acquired from India in 2006.

Government sources quoted by the paper said a team of three officials from Ashok Leyland headquarters in Chennai, India, visited Lilongwe to meet top Malawian government and military officials to finalize discussions on the sale. The government of Malawi has reportedly agreed in principle to acquire some of the vehicles at a cost of up to $100,000 each, excluding shipping and secondary logistics costs.

In March, former Malawi Deputy Defence Minister Malison Ndau announced government plans to replace the MDF fleet but said he would invite potential suppliers to submit bids from which a suitable supplier would be selected. However, the selection of Ashok Leyland without going through a tender process has led to calls for the country's Anti-Corruption Bureau to probe how the Indian company landed the deal.

The MDF's military transport and logistics vehicles modernization program arose from the need to meet the mobility, logistics and force protection requirements of nearly 800 troops deployed to support the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional combat mission set up to battle rebel groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Speaking during a visit to troops deployed to the MDF's SADC brigade in DRC in May, the chairman of Malawi's Parliamentary defense committee, Willet Kalonga, said Malawian troops need new, modern equipment to operate in the thick jungles and bad Congolese terrain.

"We will request the government to ensure that our troops are adequately equipped for such missions. Here, the forest is very thick and vision is down to 5 meters, all in very bad terrain," he said.

The MDF is also setting up a new local mountain force which requires new transport and supporting logistics platforms. If confirmed, the sale would represent an expansion of the Indian company's shares of the African market following the sale of hundred units of Ashok Leyland's DOST Light Commercial Vehicles to Malawi, South Africa and Kenya in June 2015.

In July 2015, Ashok Leyland delivered 633 out of an order of up to 670 troop carriers, buses, transport trucks, water tankers, fuel tankers, fire tenders, ambulances and light commercial vehicles ordered by the Zimbabwe Defense Forces in 2014. The equipment was acquired at a cost of $50 million secured from India's Exim Bank.

Ashok Leyland also provided training for Zimbabwean technical staff in the operation and maintenance of the vehicles. Apart from Zimbabwe, Ashok Leyland supplied 691 vehicles of the same configurations to the Tanzania People's Defence Force in 2013. The vehicles were ordered at a cost of nearly $35 million between 201 and 2012.

Commenting on the Zimbabwean and Tanzanian orders last year, Ashok Leyland Managing Director Vinod Dasari said the company had deliberately shifted its focus from other markets to boost sales in the African military market.

"These projects are a continuation of the many pilot projects we have done across Africa to offer integrated solutions, and these orders have been won in the face of stiff global competition," Dasari said. "It is very encouraging to see our efforts bear fruit. I am confident this is the beginning of a successful new area of enhanced cooperation between Ashok Leyland, Africa and our valued customers."

The company has previously supplied military vehicles of assorted configurations to the armies of Kenya, Djibouti, Botswana and the Seychelles. Ashok Leyland's African network includes sales and support offices in Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia.