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Dassault arrest warrant to rock France and Belgium

A Belgian court has issued an international warrant for the arrest of Serge Dassault, the head of France's only private aerospace company, in a case which has the potential to rock the political and business establishments of both countries.

Mr Dassault is wanted for questioning in connection with payments allegedly made in the late-1980s to obtain a lucrative deal with the Belgian army. The Dassault group is alleged to have paid 10m French francs (pounds 1.3m) into Flemish Socialist Party coffers in 1989.

Mr Dassault yesterday denied the accusations, saying: "I have nothing to do with this affair." Later, he made known that he was summoned to Belgium by fax 15 days ago for questioning and had refused to go.

The warrant for Mr Dassault's arrest was issued at the beginning of the month, but its existence was revealed only yesterday via a French-language television station in Belgium. It was subsequently confirmed by the court in Liege and by Interpol in France.

The warrant counts for little in France, which has a policy of not extraditing its nationals. Mr Dassault is liable to arrest, however, as soon as he steps outside the country's borders.

The warrant will revive Belgium's most explosive political scandal. The award in 1988 of a lucrative defence contract to the Italian helicopter firm Agusta, allegedly in return for Ffr8m in bribes, and the murder of Andre Cools, a former leader of Belgium's French-speaking Socialist Party, in 1991 triggered one of the country's biggest-ever investigations. It rocked the government and ultimately forced the resignation from Nato of Mr Willy Claes, Belgium's economics minister when the Agusta contract was awarded.

Etienne Mange, the former treasurer of the Flemish Socialists who was jailed after he admitted accepting "gifts" of 51m Belgian francs (pounds 1m) from Agusta on behalf of the party, told investigators that the Dassault company channelled Ffr10m into the Swiss bank account of a Flemish Socialist party official.

In February 1995, a Belgian lawyer, Alfons Puellinck, was arrested on suspicion of being an intermediary with the company, and police raided Dassault's Brussels office on 7 March last year and seized documents.

Twenty-four hours later, Jacques Lefebvre, a retired general in the Belgian air force, instrumental in decisions to award defence contracts to Dassault and other French firms, checked into a Brussels hotel and committed suicide. A Belgian parliamentary report concluded in October that there were "indications" that the purchase of equipment from Dassault Electronique, the electronics wing of Dassault, had been accompanied by corrupt practices.

The investigating magistrates in Liege obtained authorisation to check details of certain Swiss bank accounts believed to have been used for illegal payments. It is these accounts, including one in the name of a Panamanian company, which led to the arrest warrant being issued for Serge Dassault.