Aitken and wife split as libel trial is halted

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The former Tory Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken last night announced that he was separating from his wife on the same day that his High Court libel action was dramatically adjourned.

As his lawyers were locked in discussion with lawyers for the Guardian and Granada over a settlement, Mr Aitken and his wife, Lolicia, announced that they were parting for "personal reasons".

He said: "Recent events have shattered me and broken our family."

The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and defence procurement minister intended to call his wife, their twin daughters, Victoria and Alexandra, 17, and his mother-in-law over his controversial stay at the Paris Ritz hotel. He had described it as "ladies' day" at the court.

Mr and Mrs Aitken, a Yugoslav-born former economist, married in l979 after being introduced by the mother of Said Ayas, a Saudi business associate. Mr Aitken had described how, at one of his first meeting with his " bubbly" Lolicia, she had stated she was determined to marry him. He recalled: "As we stepped on to the dance floor, after an acquaintance of 15 minutes, she said 'I would like you to know that you're the man I am going to marry'. I said 'don't be ridiculous', but she has antennae. "

The couple also have a son, William, 14, who, Mr Aitken said in court, asked him " Daddy, what is a pimp?" after the Guardian accused him of pimping for Arab businessmen.

Neither Mr Aitken, nor his wife were in court yesterday - _the first time they had failed to turn up during the 12-day hearing.

Mr Aitken is suing the newspaper and the television company, makers of the World in Action programme, over claims that he was financially dependant on powerful Saudi interests, and that he pimped for Arabs.

A British Airways investigator, Wendy Harris, is believed to have provided details of travel arrangements for Mrs Aitken and the couple's daughter, Victoria, during the crucial period when Mr Aitken stayed at the Ritz in September l993. Mr Aitken has been accused of letting his hotel bill be paid by Prince Mohammed, son of the Saudi king, during the Paris visit, which, if proved, would be in direct contravention of rules on ministerial conduct.

Giving evidence on oath at the High Court last week, Mr Aitken insisted that the bill had been paid by Mrs Aitken who had travelled from Switzerland to Paris.

The family had travelled from London to Paris, and then Mrs Aitken had gone on with Victoria to Switzerland as Mr Aitken arrived in Paris.

He had given the same version in the past to the then prime minister, John Major, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, and MPs in the Commons.

But Ms Harris's signed statement claims that BA documentation shows that Mrs Aitken and Victoria had booked to travel directly from London to Geneva by air, and had travelled back the same way without a Paris stopover.