French minister fights off Tunisia allegations

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Allies of France's foreign minister fought off embarrassing allegations of links to Tunisia's ousted leader on Wednesday after a report that the owner of a private jet she used was close to his regime.

The allegations raised pressure on the minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, following France's U-turn over authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime after he bowed to popular protests and fled Tunisia last month.

The investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine reported in its Wednesday edition that Alliot-Marie and her family accepted a flight on a jet owned by Tunisian businessman Aziz Miled, who it said is close to Ben Ali's clan.

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

Her companion Patrick Ollier, a French junior minister for parliamentary relations who travelled with her on the plane, insisted that on the contrary Miled's business had been "plundered" by the regime.

"When we arrived in Tunis, Mr Miled, a friend of mine, offered since he has a private jet and owns the Nouvelair airline to take us to Tabarka by plane in 20 minutes rather than spend two hours in a car on mountain roads," he said.

"Mr Miled is more a victim of the Ben Ali clan than anything else. Certainly he knew president Ben Ali, but he built his fortune by himself and was plundered" by the Trabelsi family, Ben Ali's in-laws, Ollier said.

Miled, however, appears on a January 19 list of people subject to a Swiss assets freeze as an associate of Ben Ali's brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi.

Last month, when rights groups were already reporting that Tunisia's hated police had fired on unarmed protesters and shot dead dozens, Alliot-Marie suggested France could train the force to better maintain order.

It later emerged that France had approved the export of planeloads of tear gas and other equipment for riot police to Tunisia at the height of the violence.

"She must explain herself," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, the leader of the opposition Socialist members in the lower house of parliament, referring to the minister.

"I would like her to explain why she did not tell us the truth about the deliveries of police equipment including the tear gas canisters when people had already been killed in Tunisia," he said on RTL radio.

"I don't know how she can stay in her job, because France is being penalised in this affair."

President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted last week that France had underestimated the anger of the Tunisian people at Ben Ali's regime.

France had warm ties with him during his 23 years in power but after he was driven out, Sarkozy backed the protest movement. The fugitive ex-leader was denied refuge in France and took refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Alliot-Marie had not responded to the allegations by Wednesday morning.

© 2011 AFP

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