Scandal imperils Claes at critical time

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The Independent Online


Washington - Nato is reeling from fresh allegations of corruption against its Belgian Secretary-General, Willy Claes.

Just as the alliance enters one of the most critical periods in its history, the completion of planning for a Bosnian peace implementation force, furious speculation has again broken out over Mr Claes's political future. Nato diplomats are worried that his presence may weaken the alliance, and are questioning how long he can hang on. "It is terribly debilitating,'' said one diplomat. "At a time like this, his concentration has to be on the job 100 per cent; he can't disappear into private meetings with lawyers."

The issue of Mr Claes's involvement in a bribery scandal, which dogged him for several weeks earlier this year, pushed its way back to centre- stage on Friday after the Belgian media reported that the country's highest constitutional court had recommended to parliament that he face charges on corruption and fraud.

More bad news could come his way today, when the Belgian court's report is discussed by a special parliamentary commission. The 11-strong panel will decide on procedure on Tuesday. In Belgium politicians can only be investigated with the approval of parliament, which has the right to indict ministers and bring them before the constitutional court.

Nato sources say that all of Mr Claes's attention should be focused on organising the biggest and most dangerous ground operation ever launched by the military alliance, rather than on newspaper headlines.

The allegations against Mr Claes centre around a bribery scandal, involving the Italian helicopter company Agusta, when he was economics minister in 1988, an incident which has convulsed Belgian politics for the past two years. Four Belgian ministers have resigned since 1994 following accusations of kickbacks paid by Agusta to Mr Claes's Flemish socialist party. So far, there is no suggestion that Mr Claes himself received any money and he has always denied any wrongdoing.

A clearly shaken Mr Claes said on Friday that he planned to carry on as head of the Atlantic alliance. "I am totally innocent, I have never done anything wrong," he said following a meeting of Nato defence ministers in the US colonial town of Williamsburg, Virginia, to agree details of the Bosnian force.

The incident overshadowed the success of the meeting and independent analysts once again underlined the difficulty Mr Claes faces in trying to battle on. "This simply cannot go on, it is no longer a question of his guilt or innocence, but of the damage it is doing the alliance," said a senior Nato diplomat.

On Saturday, while Mr Claes travelled to Toronto to give a speech on the alliance's future, Belgium's press clamoured for his head. "If he is concerned about Nato's image... he resigns voluntarily now," wrote a columnist in De Gazet van Aantwerpen, a Flemish daily.

Nato sources say Mr Claes may be helped by the fact that member states do not want a vacancy at the top of the alliance at such a critical time.