US accuses Pasqua of lying over spy leak

Paris (Reuter) - A Franco-American spy row turned bitter yesterday when the US embassy accused the French Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, of lying about who leaked news of the dispute.

Mr Pasqua alleged in a newspaper interview that "there were many leaks from the American side" over France's request to Washington to recall five Americans, including four diplomats, it accused of industrial and political espionage.

The US embassy hit back in a statement: "We categorically reject the allegation that we are responsible for the detailed and totally regrettable press leaks . . . This charge is neither true nor credible."

The embassy's unusual rebuttal was more reminiscent of Franco-Soviet Cold War rows than of relations between two allies - even though they have a history of divisions on issues ranging from Nato to Hollywood films.

The State Department in Washington has dismissed as "unwarranted" the charges of espionage by five people Paris suspects of working for the CIA.

The US said on Thursday that diplomats embroiled in the dispute would serve out their postings and accused Mr Pasqua of giving an "inaccurate and incomplete" account of his conversations with the ambassador, Pamela Harriman, which should have been protected by diplomatic confidentiality.

Mr Pasqua, already deep in trouble over a French phone-tapping dispute, said in an interview with Le Monde newspaper on a visit to Dakar in Senegal: "There was no desire on our part to publicise this. It was due to the delay by the United States in settling this affair."

Mr Pasqua said a crackdown on what he described as US agents trying to recruit French officials was also known to the prime minister's office and the Foreign Ministry, implying leaks may have come from them too.

He said he had asked Mrs Harriman to keep the affair quiet when first telling her in January that Paris had ample evidence against five US agents it wanted recalled.

The embassy retorted: "We scrupulously respected the confidentiality agreed on during ambassador Harriman's first meeting with minister Pasqua on January 26."

French Foreign Ministry sources have said they suspected the initial leaks came from Mr Pasqua's ministry. They believe the motive was to distract attention from the phone-tapping row which has dented the standing of Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, as front-runner in elections to succeed President Franois Mitterrand.

Many French politicians have condemned publicity over the spy row. Alain Jupp, the Foreign Minister, said he was "scandalised" and urged a government inquiry.