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Gonzalez at bay in bugging scandal

Spain's Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, tried to patch up his tattered reputation yesterday, defending before parliament his government's role in the scandal of illegal secret service telephone taps. His brief intervention was his first formal public utterance since the crisis broke a fortnight ago, and came a day after two ministers had lost their jobs over the affair.

Mr Gonzalez accepted on Wednesday night the resignations of his defence minister, Julian Garcia Vargas, and his predecessor, Narcis Serra, the deputy prime minister, 16 days after they had offered to go.

Informing MPs of the conclusions of an internal defence ministry report on what went wrong, Mr Gonzalez said yesterday he would not put citizens in danger by "saying anything that could weaken Cesid [the secret intelligence service] in its functions. But he did propose to increase parliamentary control over the intelligence service.

The conservative Popular Party and the left-wing United Left demanded that Mr Gonzalez should resign, following press revelations that Cesid had for years stored illegally taped telephone conversations of dozens of public figures, including King Juan Carlos.

Mr Gonzalez is expected to complete his cabinet changes today and to inform the King tomorrow morning, before the King heads for England for the wedding of his nephew, Prince Paul of Greece. The new ministers would probably be sworn in on Monday, the first working day of Spain's presidency of the European Union.

The nationalist Catalan Convergence and Union party (CiU), whose support has sustained Mr Gonzalez's minority government for two years, wants more heads to roll. Dropping Mr Serra and Mr Vargas was necessary "but not sufficient", their parliamentary spokesman, Joaquim Molins, said.

The CiU are on the point of replacing their pact with the governing Socialists with a more informal arrangement on specific matters dear to the Catalan heart. These include devolution of control over cable television to Catalonia, dropping a Socialist proposal to liberalise the abortion law and softening proposed budget cuts for 1996.

The CiU is gunning for the Transport and Public Works Minister, Jose Borrell, who has in their view reneged on promises to transfer some of Madrid's powers to the autonomous regions. For the Catalan leader, Jordi Pujol, increasingly uncomfortable in his alliance with the government, the Cesid scandal is, as they say here, the drop that overflows the glass.

"We've tried to be understanding in some things, but this we cannot accept," he said this week. He said his party wanted no more truck with the Socialists and, following a meeting with Mr Gonzalez last weekend, Mr Pujol pointedly did not reaffirm his support for the Prime Minister. Few expect the Catalans to pull the plug on the government before the end of the year. They are expected rather to squeeze more concessions.

The Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, has been tipped as a possible successor to Mr Serra, but Mr Gonzalez may not immediately replace his deputy prime minister, preferring to share out his responsibilities among trusted colleagues, including the Economics Minister, Pedro Solbes, and the Prime Minister's spokesman, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.

The Education Minister, Gustavo Suarez Pertierra, a former junior defence minister under Mr Serra, is tipped to become Defence Minister. Some regional party barons ousted in last month's regional elections could be brought in to fill other resulting vacant positions, soothing some of their anger over Mr Gonzalez's failure to act sooner over the crisis.