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Clinton accused of forcing 21-year-old to hide their affair

President Bill Clinton, fresh from his interrogation at the hands of Paula Jones' lawyers, now stands accused of coercing a young woman to perjure herself by denying that she had an affair with him. Previous "bimbo eruptions" have assailed the president's moral character, John Carlin says, but this is the most sensational allegation against him yet because, if true, Mr Clinton is facing the prospect criminal charges and even jail.

President Clinton flatly denied the allegations in a dramatic television interview yesterday afternoon, repeatedly refuting charges of an affair with the young woman, Monica Lewinsky, and insisting that he had not urged anyone to tell a lie.

"There is not an improper relationship," Mr Clinton said. "There is not a sexual relationship." Pressed, he added: "I did not urge anyone to say anything that was untrue... That is my clear position."

Emphatic as the President strove to be, various Washington commentators remarked that his televised denials of a sexual relationship were all made in the present tense, as they were again in a radio interview last night. Since no one is accusing him of persisting in the affair now, the allegation explicitly being that it happened in the past, commentators suggested that the President's denial could be interpreted as a coldly calculated evasion.

More transparently evasive were his responses to two pointed questions in last night's radio interview. One question was whether he had ever had a relationship with Miss Lewinsky; the other was whether he had ever talked to her. In each case he refused to give an answer.

A White House spokesman had said earlier, however, that the president had responded with outrage to the allegations, which first appeared in yesterday's Washington Post. Yet the evidence, some of it allegedly on tape, has been sufficiently convincing to warrant a new round of investigations by the president's nemesis, Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel whose initial inquiries into the Whitewater affair have expanded to include a wide range of purported presidential misdemeanours. Mr Starr's office issued a subpoena yesterday demanding documents related to the new allegations, a White House spokesman said.

Ms Lewinsky, who was only 21 when she began a brief spell of duty at the White House in 1995, has so far backed the president's version of events. In an affidavit she provided on 7 January to lawyers pursuing Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit she denied ever having had an affair with the president. According to the Washington Post, President Clinton repeated the denial in response to a direct question from Ms Jones' lawyers during his sworn deposition on Saturday.

But, the Post reported, Mr Starr has in his possession audio tapes of conversations in which Ms Lewinsky recounted to a friend the graphic details of what she claimed to have been an affair that lasted one and a half years. The tapes, 17 in all, are believed to contain 20 hours of conversation. CBS news reported yesterday that Ms Lewinsky also has in her possession taped telephone conversations she had with the president.

It remains to be seen now whether the combined pressure of Mr Starr and Ms Jones' lawyers will extract a retraction from Ms Lewinsky, an attractive, dark-haired young woman whose fresh-faced, white-toothed all-American college girl looks do not speak of a great deal of sophistication in the dark ways of the Washington political world.

The first test will come tomorrow, when the Jones legal team will do to Ms Lewinsky what they did to Mr Clinton at the weekend. They will interrogate her under oath about her relationship with the president. In particular, they will seek to establish whether, as Mr Starr's sources say, the president and his close friend Vernon Jordan, a Washington lawyer and civil rights activist, bullied her into lying in the affidavit she made two weeks ago.

Deepening suspicions that the allegations might indeed be true, CBS reported yesterday afternoon that Ms Lewinsky's lawyer had said she planned to take the Fifth Amendment at Friday's deposition.

If, on the other hand, she frankly confesses that she has lied, if it turns out that the president was guilty of grossly abusing his position to extract sexual favours from a naive and susceptible employee less than half his age, then not only will Ms Jones' case against the president receive a significant boost, the way will then be clear for Mr Starr vigorously to pursue charges that the president committed perjury and deliberately obstructed justice.

In such an event the president would be staring impeachment, and a possible five-year jail term, in the face.