Claes protests innocence to the bitter end

Nato chief resigns: Race intensifies to succeed Secretary-General felled by bribes scandal

SARAH HELM

Brussels

MICHAEL SHERIDAN

London

Willy Claes resigned yesterday as Nato Secretary-General, angrily protesting his innocence in a Belgian bribery scandal, as the search intensified for his successor. In the succession race, Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch prime minister, appeared to have gained some favour over Uffe Ellemann- Jensen, the former Danish foreign minister, but, according to Nato sources, other figures could still step in.

Mr Claes went down fighting. It was, he said, "political murder". He had had no opportunity to defend himself, he declared: the Belgian system of law was archaic and undemocratic, and the press had been biased from the start. "I am totally innocent. I am convinced I have been unjustly treated."

No ordinary citizen would be so unfairly prejudged - only a politician, he said, as he stepped down from the job he has held for only one year.

Mr Claes is accused of knowing that two foreign defence companies had made payments to the Socialist Party, when he was economics minister, in the hope of winning contracts, and of failing to take action.

He opened his final press conference, at Nato headquarters, with an apparently heartfelt account of the achievements of the alliance in the past year. He focused on the immense task of the summer, when Nato forged its air- strikes policy in Bosnia, and spoke of the need to pursue Nato's enlargement plan, in which he had played an important role as broker. "I have been proud and privileged to serve the alliance, and be part of these endeavours."

But soon he was obliged to turn to the details of his downfall. As he did so, his eloquence changed, first to bitter accusation, then self-pitying rhetoric, before running on into a long, repetitive rant.

He started his self-defence by attacking the Belgian constitutional law, which, he complained, had not been updated since 1831, and allowed a politician to be sent for trial before an investigation had been completed. He repeated his claim that the evidence against him contained "no facts, just a few statements" and he complained that he had been refused the right to confront his accusers.

He described the MPs who voted that he face trial for his alleged part in the scandal as "150 judges", most of whom had ganged up against him and voted along party lines. "I am an angry man," he said. "I do not intend to become a bitter man, despite the injustice to which I have been subjected.''

There were moments when it was hard not to feel sympathy with Mr Claes. But at no stage did he concede that his determination to stay in the job and save his skin might have unnecessarily strung the scandal out, damaging the image of Belgian politics and of Nato.

He appeared incapable of seeing why it might be that a man in his position must face a stiff test with public opinion and the press, as well as the test of the court of law. In the end, Mr Claes left the Nato stage with little dignity.

Britain praised him for his service, but the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said Nato should move quickly to appoint a successor. In the meantime, the deputy secretary- general, Sergio Belanzino, will stand in.

Britain will be anxious to see continuity on Bosnia, relations with Russia, and expansion to eastern Europe, but has not yet given its backing to any candidate to succeed Mr Claes.

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