Key Clearstream witness defies investigators

22nd May 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 22, 2006 (AFP) - Retired spymaster Philippe Rondot, a central figure in the French government's Clearstream dirty tricks scandal, was escorted by police before investigating magistrates Monday but refused to answer their questions.

PARIS, May 22, 2006 (AFP) - Retired spymaster Philippe Rondot, a central figure in the French government's Clearstream dirty tricks scandal, was escorted by police before investigating magistrates Monday but refused to answer their questions.

The 69-year-old former head of intelligence at the defence ministry is a key witness whose leaked testimony has implicated Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and President Jacques Chirac in charges of ordering a secret enquiry into their rival Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Having announced last week that he would no longer speak to the two judges investigating the affair, Rondot was visited by police early Monday at his home and taken to the central law courts in Paris.

But according to his lawyer Eric Morain: "General Rondot renewed his request to be recognised as an 'assisted witness' and when this was refused, he in turn refused to answer the judges' questions."

In French law, an "assisted witness" is a person against whom there are preliminary suspicions of wrong-doing. He has the right to be interviewed in the presence of a lawyer and has access to the judge's findings.

Judges Jean-Marie d'Huy and Henri Pons want to question Rondot over events in early 2004, when lists began circulating bearing the names of politicians and businessmen allegedly paid illegal commissions via the Clearstream bank of Luxembourg.

Contemporary notes kept by the intelligence chief — confiscated by the judges and leaked to Le Monde newspaper — suggest that in January 2004 Villepin, who was then foreign minister, asked Rondot to set up an undercover enquiry into claims Sarkozy was a Clearstream account holder.

The claims turned out to be false, but Sarkozy suspects Villepin and Chirac of trying to exploit the allegation in order to damage him ahead of next year's presidential election, in which he is a favourite.

In the last two weeks Rondot has retracted his initial testimony, telling newspaper interviewers that Sarkozy's name was not mentioned as a Clearstream account holder at his key 2004 meeting with Villepin.

But Le Monde newspaper returned to the charge Monday, citing more leaks of Rondot's handwritten notes which it says show that the retired spymaster is now trying to protect Villepin and Chirac.

Last week Jean-Louis Gergorin — a senior executive at the European defense company EADS — admitted that he was the mystery informant who produced the Clearstream lists, though he denied making them up. Gergorin — who has known Villepin since 1981 — was present at the January 2004 meeting with Rondot.

According to Le Monde, Rondot has been anxious to conceal the fact that Villepin knew from early on that Gergorin and EADS computer expert Imad Lahoud were the source of the Clearstream lists.

"The general's notes ... bring up several times this concern: 'Protect D de V,'" Le Monde said.

With its revelations of internecine hatred and its allegations of outright deceit, the Clearstream scandal has badly damaged the French government, boosting the chances of the opposition socialists and the far-right National Front a year ahead of presidential elections.

However according to a poll in Le Figaro newspaper Monday, 59 percent of the public believe the affair "is not as important as all that" compared to 31 percent who say it is very important." The prime minister has repeatedly defied calls for him to resign.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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