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Gonzalez stands firm as ministers resign

Felipe Gonzalez, immersed in a quagmire of corruption that has plunged Spain into political crisis, yesterday conceded there had been an abuse of trust at high levels of government, but rejected calls for his resignation.

Speaking at a packed press conference after a meeting with King Juan Carlos, which had added fuel to resignation rumours, the Spanish Prime Minister said he considered it his responsibility to stay on, tackle the corruption epidemic and continue fighting the country's worst economic crisis in more than 30 years.

He faced the press after a day described in the media here as 'the blackest in Spain's democratic history'. Wednesday had seen his Agriculture Minister resign, admitting tax evasion, as well as the arrests of the former governor of the Bank of Spain, Mariano Rubio, and a former stock market broker, Manuel de la Concha, on suspicion of fraud and tax evasion. Both men were imprisoned and face up to 20 years' each if convicted.

Interior Minister Antoni Asuncion resigned last weekend after the former Guardia Civil chief Luis Roldan, under investigation for suspected massive self-enrichment at taxpayer's expense, disappeared and threatened to bring down other senior officials with him if he turned himself in.

Mr Roldan said he has been made a scapegoat, and Mr Rubio's wife, the Uruguayan writer Carmen Posadas, said the same of her husband. Although evidence published against both men suggests serious unethical and/or criminal conduct, there is a widespread feeling in Spain that they are 'taking the fall' for a system riddled with corruption, tax evasion, bribes, commissions and what is known here as enchufismo (having and using 'connections').

When Agriculture Minister Vicente Albero resigned, he spoke of having evaded an 'insignificant' amount of tax. Yesterday, prosecutors said the amount was at least 20 million pesetas (around pounds 100,000).

With the ruling Socialist establishment in a state of panic, Mr Gonzalez revealed that two of his closest friends and former ministers, Jose Luis Corcuera and Carlos Solchaga, had resigned from their current posts. Mr Corcuera, a former Interior Minister who was once Mr Roldan's boss, resigned his parliamentary seat. Mr Solchaga, former Minister of Economy and Finance and until now the Socialist Party's parliamentary leader, resigned from the latter post and resigned his seat.

Both Mr Corcuera and Mr Solchaga were said to have accepted political responsibility - Mr Corcuera in the Roldan affair and Mr Solchaga for the Rubio case - although there was no suggestion of criminal involvement by either man.

Mr Gonzalez said he was combining the Ministries of Interior and Justice, to be headed by the man currently in charge of the latter, Juan Alberto Belloch. Luis Atienza, formerly a senior official in the Energy Ministry, was named Agriculture Minister.

Despite the deepening crisis, Mr Gonzalez was defiant. 'The first doubt I want to clear up, because there has been speculation and some opposition forces are demanding my resignation, is that I'm not going to resign. On the contrary, I think my responsibility is to continue at the head of the executive and clear up the cases that have been presented, and any others that could crop up, and continue combating the economic crisis which we are beginning to overcome.'

Pressed by reporters, he admitted: 'I was responsible for trusting people I shouldn't have trusted. To that extent, I feel responsible. . .time has shown we've made mistakes. I've had trouble conceiving that someone would use public office for self-enrichment. There has been a very clear excess of trust.'

Of the possibility of a no- confidence motion, Mr Gonzalez said support had been guaranteed to him by the Catalan leader, Jordi Pujol, whose Catalan nationalists hold the balance of power in parliament.

Mr Pujol ratified his continuing support for Mr Gonzalez yesterday, but the Catalan leader is thought to be pressing for greater concessions towards outright Catalonian autonomy - and many believe his ultimate aim is independence from Spain.

(Photographs omitted)