Three quit in Belgian pay-off scandal

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THE LID BLEW off Belgium's long-simmering political scandal yesterday with the spectacular resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister, Guy Coeme, and two other prominent Socialist ministers.

Mr Coeme's departure upsets the delicate political balance of the ruling coalition, while the resignation of Guy Spitaels, the powerful Minister-President of the French-speaking Wallonia region and his Interior Minister, Guy Mathot, further undermines the Socialist Party, the dominant political power in the French-speaking part of Belgium. Inevitably the scandal has become known as 'the Three Guys Affair' and its ever-widening sweep has inflamed fears that widespread corruption may be uncovered in the political establishment.

All three men protest their innocence and deny accusations, contained in a 16-page report leaked to the press last week, that in 1988 they knowingly falsified vital documents to ensure that a pounds 222m government tender for 46 army helicopters was awarded to the Italian company Agusta, despite competitive bids from French and German companies. Agusta is alleged to have repaid the kindness with secret payments worth at least pounds 2m to the Socialist Party.

Mr Coeme, defence minister in 1988, said in a press statement yesterday that his conscience was clear and he would now devote all his efforts to fighting the allegations. His resignation had been widely expected, urged upon him in the interests of preserving the coalition by the Christian Democrat Flemings who dominate the government, including the Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene. In a letter Mr Dehaene told Mr Coeme yesterday he had done the 'honourable' thing in 'placing public interest before personal interest'.

The Agusta affair has prompted a re-examination of the laws on the financing of political parties and the broad definition of immunity that is accorded to politicians. The Three Guys have not been charged with any crime, but the investigating magistrate, Veronique Ancia, whose report was leaked last week, must persuade parliament to lift their immunity if she is to question them. This has been agreed for Mr Spitaels and Mr Mathot, but the procedure is more complicated for Mr Coeme, a serving member of the national government.

Ms Ancia's private and often unsourced report depends heavily on the damaging accounts of three anonymous witnesses, allegedly very senior Socialist Party members, and other unsubstantiated and possibly biased testimony. Ms Ancia stumbled on the Agusta affair while investigating the murder in 1991 of a leading Liege Socialist, Andre Cools, who, it is inferred, may have been killed because of what he knew about kickbacks for the Socialist Party and, angered that he was not cut in on the deal, was preparing to reveal all.