Nato chief pressed to go as trial hearing begins

SARAH HELM

Brussels

As Nato officials started detailed planning yesterday for peace enforcement in the Balkans, Willy Claes, the alliance's secretary-general, was appearing before a Belgian parliamentary commission considering whether he should stand trial on corruption charges.

Mr Claes is accused of countenancing kickbacks, allegedly paid by Agusta, the Italian helicopter firm, to the Flemish Socialist Party in 1988.

Even before the outcome, expectations continued to grow in Brussels that Mr Claes would be obliged to resign within days, and informal speculation mounted over who would be the most likely successor. Douglas Hurd, the former British Foreign Secretary, remains a front runner, although Mr Hurd's past reluctance to intervene militarily in the former Yugoslavia could count against him, especially with Washington.

The credibility of the Nato alliance, already shaken by the affair, which has been running for months, can only have been further damaged yesterday as television cameras flashed pictures of Mr Claes, a former Belgian foreign minister, arriving for the judicial hearing. The hearing is taking place just at a time when Nato needs to shore up its credibility in order to win backing for its newly assigned role in the former Yugoslavia.

The secretary-general himself, however, still showed no sign that he was under pressure. With a relaxed grin he appeared determined to brazen out the affair, seeming confident that his immunity from prosecution - granted to all Belgian ministers and ex-ministers - would not be lifted.

Nevertheless, it is now widely accepted that should the parliamentary commission decide there is sufficient evidence to lift Mr Claes's immunity, his term as secretary-general of Nato will be finished. A decision on whether to lift the immunity is expected within a few days. Nato sources said last night that if a trial does go ahead, "Mr Claes will be expected to do the honourable thing''. One official said: "We don't want to have to send the men in white suits because that would be embarrassing, but we would expect him to behave like a gentleman and take responsibility."

Until this week's hearing, leaders of the 16 Nato member states, particularly those in Washington, London, Paris and Bonn, had hoped that the scandal would burn out, and that Nato's pristine reputation could remain untainted by the smears of murky Belgian politics.

Commenting on the prosecution case, put to the parliamentary commission yesterday, Mr Claes said he saw "not a single new element". He added: "There is no fact. There are only so-called indications."

Inside the alliance it is taken as read that there would be enough evidence to convict Mr Claes at a full trial. This week, Robert Hunter, the US ambassador to Nato, stood by Mr Claes, but in terms which suggested he envisaged his demise: "Willy Claes led the alliance successfully from the beginning to end. This man has proved he is a worthy secretary-general."

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