Gonzalez ally to be tried over hit squads over death squads

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Amid the storms lashing Spain in recent days was a political thunderbolt that threatens to blow asunder Felipe Gonzalez's election chances and possibly wreck his party.

The Supreme Court is to try the former interior minister Jose Barrionuevo, a member of the Prime Minister's inner circle, for setting up a hit-squad against Basque separatists and financing it from ministry slush funds.

The charges, announced yesterday by the Supreme Court judge Eduardo Moner, bring this most serious of the scandals to have eroded the Socialist government's credibility nearer than ever to Mr Gonzalez. For the moment, he is backing his former minister to the hilt.

Mr Barrionuevo, who is on bail, is charged with illegal detention over the kidnap of a French businessman mistaken for an Eta member; with misuse of public funds; and with association with an armed gang, the Anti-terrorist Liberation Group, or Gal.

Mr Moner said "proven facts" pointed to Mr Barrionuevo as organiser of Gal and in particular its first act, the kidnapping of Segundo Marey. The former minister ordered Mr Marey to be held even after he was discovered to be the wrong man, apparently to put pressure on France.

The bombshell is a gift to the conservative Popular Party leader, Jose Maria Aznar, who, if he plays his cards right, may sail to absolute victory in the general elections on 3 March.