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FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering after he inaugurated Kochi Metro at a stadium in Kochi, India, June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Sivaram V/File Photo

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(Reuters) - The United States government has approved the sale of a naval variant of the Predator drone made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc to India, the U.S.-based company said on Friday.

Reuters reported earlier on Friday that the U.S. government was expected to authorize the sale of drones ahead of a visit next week by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India has been looking to buy 22 of the unarmed surveillance aircraft, MQ-9B Guardian, worth more than $2 billion to keep watch over the Indian Ocean.

"We are pleased that the U.S. Government has cleared the way for the sale of the MQ-9B Guardian to the Indian Government," General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Chief Executive Linden Blue said in a statement.

The Indian embassy and the U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Securing agreement on the purchase of the drones is seen in New Delhi as a key test of defence ties that flourished under former President Barack Obama but have drifted under Trump, who has courted Asian rival China as he seeks Beijing's help to contain North Korea's nuclear program.

The deal would be the first such purchase by a country that is not a member of the NATO alliance.

Such a sale of sensitive military hardware must be authorized by the State Department before being sent to Congress for review.

A congressional source said on Thursday that no notification of a planned sale has yet been sent to Congress, but this could come next week.

The State Department declined comment on Thursday ahead of any notification.

(Reporting by Mike Stone and David R. Brunnstrom in Washington, Arunima Banerjee and Ankit Ajmera in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)

Reuters