Claes in last effort to keep Nato job

SARAH HELM

Brussels

In a final effort to save his skin, Willy Claes, the Nato Secretary-General, yesterday asked to address the Belgian parliament when it meets, probably on Thursday, to decide whether to send him for trial on corruption charges.

Still refusing to heed the growing calls for his resignation, Mr Claes clearly hopes that he can influence the vote in the parliament by protesting his innocence in person, disavowing any knowledge of kick-backs allegedly paid by the Agusta helicopter company to his Flemish Socialist Party when he was economics minister.

On Saturday, a parliamentary commission ruled that there was enough evidence against Mr Claes to lift his immunity from prosecution as an ex-minister. The commission's recommendation is now before parliament, which alone has the power to send a minister for trial.

At Nato headquarters yesterday, the alliance's 16 ambassadors, gathering for the first time since the sudden eruption of "Willygate", remained publicly silent about what the secretary-general should do. Privately, officials are making it clear that time has now run out for Mr Claes.

Alliance leaders are intensifying their search for a successor in the expectation that Mr Claes will be gone before the end of the week. At the same time, contenders who want to lobby for the job are beginning to emerge from the shadows.

The front-runner is Uffe Elleman-Jensen, the former Danish foreign minister. He is believed to be pushing his candidature hard and is favoured by the US, as well as European alliance members. Hans van den Broek, EU foreign affairs commissioner, is also said to be keen on the job, but he is believed in Washington to be too closely associated with what the US regards as the EU's feeble policy towards former Yugoslavia.

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