The murder of Andre Cools by a lone gunman in the Belgian city of Liege in 1991 was originally deemed "inexplicable". The 63-year-old mayor of the town of Flemalle was a respected senior politician, who had been deputy prime minister of Belgium from 1969 to 1973, and then chairman of the Walloon Socialist party up until 1981. He may well have been about to drive his mistress to the station when the shooting took place, but Belgians tend to turn a blind eye to the sexual misdemeanours of their political class. Locally, he was a hugely popular figure.
Yet his killing would turn out to be another link in the chain of scandal that continues to choke the Belgian government. The investigation, steered by Liege magistrate Veronique Ancia, came to nothing at first, but regained momentum when another magistrate began looking into the theft of millions of dollars worth of bearer bonds from Brussels' Zaventem airport. The bonds later turned up at a bank in Liechtenstein, in the possession of a businessman who was trying to cash them. He said he had been driven there by the Italian chauffeur of Alain van de Biest, a leading Belgian socialist who had taken Cools's place in the party hierarchy. When arrests were made over the stolen bonds, it was alleged that the chauffeur had been involved in organising the killing of Cools, and was acting on Mr van de Biest's instructions.
Mr van de Biest strenuously denied the allegations, and volunteered to testify before Mrs Ancia's commission. But in doing so he made various oblique references to occasional "irregularities" and "discrepancies" in local party finances, which prompted Mrs Ancia to investigate the funding of the Belgian Socialist party. After a raid on the party's Liege offices, evidence emerged that party officials had taken money from the Italian helicopter firm Agusta in the late 80s, in return for the award of a lucrative contract to supply the Belgian army with its wares. Three implicated ministers resigned on the same day early in 1994, and the following year Nato secretary- general Willy Claes, Belgian finance minister when the contract was awarded, was also forced to stand down. Agusta, though, continues to deny it handed over any bribes.
A few days before his death, Cools had told journalists that he intended to make some interesting revelations. It was now suggested that Cools was angry at being excluded from the flow of bribes paid by Agusta's lobbyist in Belgium, and was silenced by a hitman before he could reveal what was going on. Cools was regarded as the archetypal machine politician in Liege, but what Mrs Ancia discovered was that that machine was being fuelled by the activities of an altogether less savoury world. In that world, Cools had, allegedly, been a kingpin.
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