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RPT-EXCLUSIVE-Airbus begins external search for new sales chief -sources

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PARIS, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Airbus has embarked on a fresh search for a sales chief to take over from soon-to-retire John Leahy as the aerospace group seeks a clean break from turmoil over investigations into the use of middlemen, said three people familiar with the plans.

Leahy's deputy, Executive Vice-President Kiran Rao, had been identified as Leahy's successor earlier this year, but his appointment to one of the industry's most high-profile jobs was never confirmed as Leahy postponed his retirement to end-year.

Chief Executive Tom Enders has now decided to look outside the core part of the company in a bid to denote a fresh start, but Rao is not being targeted in the investigation which centres mainly on a defunct headquarters team, the people said.

Rao confirmed he would not be in the running for the post.

"I can confirm I am no longer pursuing the position of commercial director and intend to concentrate on Airbus product strategy," Rao told Reuters.

An Airbus spokesman said the company does not comment on personnel matters.

The search comes as the Airbus marketing machine is seen as demoralised as a result of UK and French probes, which have also sparked a blanket internal investigation.

Enders told a recent sales meeting Leahy would stay till the year-end, but failed to confirm Rao's appointment, leaving what insiders described as a sense of vacuum amid dwindling sales.

Rao, 53, has until recently combined the no. 2 sales role with product development, for which he received a French distinction in July. He has stood in for Leahy since July as the veteran New Yorker prepared to retire, initially in September.

The search for a new successor extends outside the core part of Airbus but will include affiliates such as 50-percent owned turboprop maker ATR, where CEO and former Airbus commercial strategy chief Christian Scherer is seen as a leading contender.

ATR said Scherer was not available for comment.

Several outside candidates are being considered and Airbus could go looking at suppliers, such as the recently overhauled management team at Britain's Rolls-Royce, for candidates. (Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta)