French foreign minister used Tunisian private jet

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French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie was accused Tuesday of taking a flight in the private jet of a Tunisian businessman allegedly close to ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Alliot-Marie's office confirmed she had accepted a flight during a holiday in late December last year -- after the start of protests against Ben Ali's regime -- but denied the tycoon was a crony of the then-dictator.

Ben Ali fled Tunisia on January 14, and the minister has already faced criticism for appearing to back his regime even after his security forces had fired on unarmed protests against his 23-years of iron-fisted rule.

The investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine reports in its edition due to appear Wednesday that she and her family accepted a flight on a jet owned by Tunisian businessman Aziz Miled, whom it said is close to Ben Ali's clan.

But, speaking to AFP, Alliot-Marie's office denied Miled was an associate of the dictator, who is now living in exile in Saudi Arabia while Tunisian and French judges pore over his family's vast and murky business empire.

The Canard said Miled had business links to the Tunisian leader's brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi, but an aide to Alliot-Marie insisted the businessman was in fact a victim of the clan's predatory tactics.

"It's true that Michele Alliot-Marie, having taken a commercial flight from Paris to Tunis, did take a private plane to Tabarka," an official in her office told AFP, referring to the minister's post-Christmas break.

"It was at the invitation of Aziz Miled, a friend of many years who owns the Nouvelair airline. Aziz Miled was on board and hosted the minister, her partner and some relatives," the official said.

"But Aziz Miled is not a member of the Ben Ali clan. In fact, he saw 20 percent of the airline and the chairmanship of the firm taken from him by the Trabelsi family," he explained.

The family of Ben Ali's wife Leila Trabelsi are reported to have used her political influence to demand shares in profitable Tunisian businesses. These alleged mafia-style tactics contributed to his overthrow.

Alliot-Marie's office said that since Ben Ali's downfall last month the new Tunisian government, which has promised an end to corruption, has now restored control of the airline to her friend Miled.

"In no way was this a favour from the Ben Ali clan," her aide insisted.

The report is likely to increase pressure on Alliot-Marie over her handling of the Tunisian crisis.

Just days before the fall of the regime she shocked Tunisian democrats by suggesting that France could help train Tunisia's hated police force to better enable it to control the popular uprising against his rule.

© 2011 AFP

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