French ex-PM Villepin questioned over Pakistan arms scandal

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A French judge questioned former prime minister Dominique de Villepin on Thursday about corruption allegations linked to the deaths of 11 French engineers in a Pakistani bombing in 2002.

Villepin, who was being questioned as a witness by investigating magistrate Renaud Van Ruymbeke, said on Friday that he had "very strong suspicions" that French officials received illegal payments related to arms deals in 1995.

Witnesses have alleged the Pakistan bombing was revenge for the cancelling of kickbacks paid to officials in the arms deals, in a complex case linked to alleged illegal political funding and implicating President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Villepin was chief of staff to then President Jacques Chirac, who cancelled the commissions after he took office in 1995 because he suspected they would lead to kickbacks to his political rival Edouard Balladur, a Sarkozy ally.

Villepin is also Sarkozy's bitterest political rival and likely to run against him for president in 2012.

Witnesses have also alleged Sarkozy, budget minister at the time of the arms deal and Balladur's campaign spokesman, was linked to the commissions.

The current French leader has angrily dismissed talk of his involvement as a "fairy tale" and denies any knowledge of kickbacks.

The bombing in Karachi in 2002 killed 11 French engineers and at least three Pakistanis. Relatives of the French victims plan to sue Villepin and Chirac for manslaughter and have called for Sarkozy to testify.

The lawyer acting for the relatives, Olivier Morice, was present Thursday when Villepin was being questioned by the judge.

© 2010 AFP

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