French ex-minister charged with Pakistani arms deal graft

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A former French minister was charged with graft Thursday over alleged arms deal kickbacks said to have funded the presidential campaign of an ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy, a lawyer said.

A lawyer working for the families of victims of a Pakistani bomb attack thought to be linked to the deal, Olivier Morice, said Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres had been charged with "embezzling public funds".

Earlier, police had confirmed that the supect had been arrested on Tuesday and held overnight before being questioned by investigating magistrates. He is now free, but expected for face trial for his role in "the Karachi affair".

Vabres, 57, culture minister between 2004 and 2007, was serving as a senior advisor to then defence minister Francois Leotard in 1994 when a suspect contract to sell French submarines to Pakistan was signed.

The contract has since become the focus of a graft probe, amid allegations that kickbacks from the deal were used to fund Edouard Balladur's failed 1995 presidential campaign, for which Sarkozy acted as spokesman.

There have also been claims that a 2002 bombing in Karachi that killed 11 French naval engineers was carried out by Pakistani agents in revenge for the cancellation of bribes secretly promised to officials.

Sarkozy has denied any knowledge of illegal contributions to Balladur's campaign, but the long-running investigation has tainted his preparations to stand for re-election next year.

Three people have already been charged with graft in the investigation: alleged middleman Franco-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine and two former close political aides to Sarkozy.

Investigators have discovered that a mysterious 20 million francs (around three million euros) in cash was paid into Balladur's 1995 campaign coffers -- 10 million of them in one payment the day after the vote.

© 2011 AFP

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