Claes due to quit as Nato chief

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The Independent Online
WILLY CLAES, the Nato Secretary-General, is expected to resign following the Belgian parliamentary commission ruling yesterday that he should face trial on charges of corruption.

The scandal comes at a terrible time for Nato, which has just begun the planning for deploying a massive force to Bosnia to enforce the peace deal. The alliance will have to choose a successor to Mr Claes with the utmost urgency, and it is essential that it be someone fully committed to Nato's new interventionist policy in the Balkans.

The strong favourite is Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, the former Danish foreign minister, who commands high respect in Washington as well as European capitals. Douglas Hurd, who resigned as foreign secretary in June, has been tipped, but following his hands-off approach to the war in the former Yugoslavia it is thought unlikely he would win backing from Washington.

Mr Claes is accused of knowing about payments made by Augusta, the Italian helicopter company, to his Flemish Socialist Party in return for helicopter sales at a time when he was Belgium's economics minister. Yesterday he said he was "stricken" by the parliamentary commission's finding. Asked by Belgian radio whether he would quit his post he said: "It's too soon. I must examine the test of the commission - and think about it before taking my decision."

Although Nato members have tried to maintain support for Mr Claes during the long-running corruption scandal, there was little doubt yesterday that the parliamentary commission decision to lift his immunity from prosecution must bring about his resignation. It is inconveivable that he could continue in the top Nato job while on trial.

Under Belgian law, only the Belgian parliament can send ministers and former ministers for trial. The parliamentary commission, set up to decide if there was a case against Mr Claes, said yesterday that it was "imperative" that proceedings should begin. The parliament will vote on whether to charge Mr Claes on Thursday, and is expected to follow the commission's recommendation.

Mr Ellemann-Jensen has not been directly involved in decisions on Europe's Balkan policy and would therefore come to the Nato job uncompromised in US eyes by what Washington sees as European perfidy over the past four years.