Craxi linked to Belgian murder case

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BELGIAN officials investigating the murder of the country's former deputy prime minister, Andre Cools, nearly three years ago want to interview Bettino Craxi, the disgraced former prime minister of Italy, as well as a Luxembourg-based confidant and former staff member of the European Parliament who has gone missing.

Veronique Ancia, a Liege-based investigating magistrate, says she is working on the assumption that there is a link between the Cools murder and Italy's tangenti (bribery) scandal. 'I don't know where nor when but I want to talk to Craxi. I have applied for it and Italy must now fix the appointment,' she recently told reporters.

So far Ms Ancia's murder investigation has uncovered an extensive bribery network set up to benefit the Socialist Party in which Mr Cools was a prominent figure up until his death. Links to Italy's corruption scandals are now being traced to a decision by the Belgian government to sign an 8bn Belgian franc ( pounds 160m) contract with the Italian helicopter company Agusta Spa for 46 attack and reconnaissance helicopters for the army. Kickbacks totalling BF160m are thought to have been paid by the company's agent in Belgium to Socialist officials.

A popular figure in Liege, where he was the archetypal machine politician, Mr Cools was murdered early in the morning of 18 July 1991 as he took his mistress to the railway station from her apartment. A lone gunman fired four shots from a 7.65mm handgun, fatally wounding Mr Cools who was hit in the head and neck and his mistress who was shot through the lungs. A few days before his death, Mr Cools told journalists that he intended to make some interesting revelations.

Speculation persists that Mr Cools was angry at being excluded from the flow of bribes paid by Agusta's lobbyist in Belgium and that he was silenced by a professional hitman before he could reveal what was going on. Ms Ancia, the dogged Liege investigator, has found herself frustrated at every turn by Italian bureaucracy which has so far prevented her from interrogating suspects directly.

Her investigation has taken her from the murky depths of Belgian Socialist Party politics to Italy's tangled scandals via the shadowy world of Luxembourg shell companies. These, the Italian authorities say, provided cover for illegal funds passing from companies to political parties in Italy. There are even wilder suggestions that the bribes were used to lubricate the wheels of a wider network of Italy's Socialist friends abroad.

To keep illegal payments safe from prying eyes in Italy, the missing European Parliament official, Mauro Giallombardo, is believed to have discretely handled the bank transfers from Luxembourg where he maintained two luxury residences. Though he never made much of an impression on his Socialist colleagues at the Parliament, he was apparently a specialist in handling hot money.

One company he was associated with, Merchant Italia, was founded in Milan in the late 1980s with a capital of 8bn lire ( pounds 3m), with some 80 per cent of its stock controlled by Socialist-linked businesspeople and 20 per cent of its stock owned anonymously. The company is administered in trust by the Lambert Bank of Brussels.

Merchant Italy opened a subsidiary, Merchant International Holding, in 1990 in Luxembourg with 7bn lire sent from Italy and with Mr Giallombardo as chairman. It in turn set up a subsidiary of its own called Merchant Europe, in Avenue du Bois, Luxembourg, this time with only 400m lire and also headed by Mr Giallombardo. The Italian authorities have focused on allegations of false contracts for 'consultancy services' from Merchant Italia, involving payments of 250m lire to the Italian Socialist Party.

Belgian authorities have not said what links if any Mr Giallombardo may have to the Agusta scandal and the subsequent murder of Mr Cools, but they want to talk to him and to his political master, Mr Craxi.

'I am determined to get to the bottom of it,' the investigating judge, Ms Ancia, says. 'This is an investigation into a foggy world, a very nebulous world, with threads which it is difficult to bring together, a real labyrinth. I am not discouraged but sometimes I feel so angry.'

Mr Giallombardo, formerly head of the European Confederation of Socialist Parties, went missing after an international arrest warrant was issued by the Italian authorities for him in February. Although he rarely showed up for work, he was on the Parliament's payroll as a researcher until February.

For years, however, he was known to officials in the Socialist group as Mr Craxi's personal representative in Brussels and Luxembourg. Some assumed that he was employed by the Italian Socialists rather than by the Parliament.

When the Milan magistrates shook the political establishment formally investigating Mr Craxi in the tangenti scandals, they brought particularly serious charges of corruption against Mr Giallombardo, accusing him of acting 'in complicity with Bettino Craxi'.

These charges dealt with 130m lire allegedly paid by a construction firm, Itinera, to the Socialist Party in return for a contract to work on the Milan-Serravalle motorway. The magistrates formally declared him a fugitive from justice and contacted Interpol in late February.

The Italian daily La Repubblica says Mr Giallombardo 'was the pivot of a series of entrepreneurial and financial activities which the magistrates believe constituted the business arm of the top leaders of the Socialist Party'. His cover as an employee of the European Parliament provided him with a base in Luxembourg - where Parliamentary staffers live - while giving him access, thanks to Luxembourg's secretive banking laws, to one of Europe's main money-laundering centres.

The Belgian government's decision to buy the A-109 anti-tank helicopters went ahead although the army wanted to buy a cheaper MBB German-made tank, which is more suitable for Nato exercises. The Belgian high command on the other hand opted for the French-made Ecureuil, made by Aerospatiale, which is cheaper to run and buy.

Agusta Spa won the contract when it offered to assemble the helicopters in Belgium, at a time when the Socialists got their hands on the Defence Ministry.

Investigators have since uncovered a paper trail of bribes from the Italian company to a variety of officials linked with the Socialist Party.