Belgium braces for more scandal

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Belgium is preparing for another corruption scandal after allegations in the press that Aerospatiale, the French aerospace company, paid cash to the Flemish Socialist Party.

A number of senior politicians have already paid with their jobs over similar allegations and some of the country's most important figures are considering their positions. Willy Claes, Secretary-General of Nato and a former minister, is still trying to fight off allegations that he knew of a payment offered by Agusta, an Italian helicopter company.

Aerospatiale and Agusta were both bidding to supply helicopters to Belgium in 1988. Agusta is alleged to have paid £1m to the Flemish Socialist Party to secure the contract, which it denies.

Yesterday's Belgian papers carried allegations that Aerospatiale had given the same sum to the party. Aerospatiale would not comment.

There is a continuing flow of allegations from the authorities in Lige investigating the affair to the Belgian press. Many of the latest accusations seem to come from Etienne Mange, the party's former treasurer, who has been giving evidence. Others are also talking: yesterday the Belgian court ruled that Johan Delanghe, former top official to Mr Claes, should stay in prison to give evidence.

The Dutch Defence Minister, Joris Voorhoeve, said this week that Mr Claes should temporarily resign while his position was explained, but later withdrew the statement. "If you read the text of what I said, then what is there is not what I wanted to say or should have said." The Dutch government had full support for Mr Claes, he said.

But diplomats in London and Brussels say privately that they doubt whether Mr Claes will be able to sustain his position if he cannot quickly clear up the allegations that surround him. Any new revelations would sink him, they say. Mr Claes is on a high-profile visit to Canada and the United States.

The Agusta scandal has devastated the Francophone Socialist Party, and now looks set to do the same to its Flemish counterpart. Elections are planned for May that could see all of Belgium's established political parties losing ground to minority parties of the right.