Spy chief attacks Villepin in smear case

Former French premier on trial, accused of trying to discredit Sarkozy
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The Independent Online

One of France's most distinguished spy chiefs yesterday seriously undermined the defence of the former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, in the Clearstream political "smear" trial.

As France's so-called "trial of the century" entered its third week, General Philippe Rondot, the man who captured the terrorist Carlos the Jackal in 1994, contradicted point-by-point much of the evidence given on oath by the former prime minister last week. The 73-year-old general told the court that he now believed – and "regretted" – that he had been "manipulated" by Mr Villepin and others.

The former prime minister, 55, is accused of trying to destroy the political career of his colleague and rival, the future President Nicolas Sarkozy, by encouraging the investigation of false allegations of corruption against him in 2004. In statements to the court last Wednesday, Mr Villepin said he had never been aware that Mr Sarkozy's name occurred on a list of "illegal" off-shore bank accounts, which turned out to have been faked.

General Rondot told the court yesterday that Mr Sarkozy's name had been mentioned repeatedly in January 2004 when he was first called to the office of Mr Villepin – then foreign minister – to discuss the list of accounts supposedly handled by the Clearstream International bank in Luxembourg. He stood by his private notes of the meeting, seized in 2006 by investigators, which said that Mr Villepin had spoken of "instructions" from President Jacques Chirac to pursue the affair.

In his evidence last week, Mr Villepin said he had received no Clearstream instructions from Mr Chirac. In one of the private notes that have become crucial evidence for the prosecution, General Rondot quotes Mr Villepin as saying: "If our names are ever linked to this affair, President [Chirac] and myself, we will be blown out of the water." In his evidence last week, Mr Villepin said the general's notes were inaccurate and confused. He suggested that General Rondot had bungled the affair because he was anxious to repeat his 1994 Carlos "coup" and "find Osama bin Laden".

The former prime minister said that General Rondot had become convinced that the key to finding the al-Qa'ida chief was a Lebanese-born mathematician called Imad Lahoud, who had once worked for the Bin Laden family bank in London. It was Mr Lahoud – also on trial in Paris – who first brought the faked Clearstream lists to the attention of French security services.

Mr Villepin said General Rondot had given too much credibility to Mr Lahoud because of his obsession with finding Bin Laden. In the witness box yesterday, General Rondot angrily responded to the ex-prime minister's suggestions of bungling. "Military men do not have a great reputation in France but all the same I don't have the IQ of a scallop," he said.