New Caledonian leader investigated in graft probe

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The head of government in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia was placed under formal investigation Thursday as part of a probe into tax breaks for 3G telephone operators, legal sources said.

Harold Martin, the president of the government in the French overseas territory, was granted conditional release pending an investigation on charges of conflict of interest.

Under the French legal system, being placed under investigation means a magistrate has ruled there is a prima facie case to answer while prosecutors decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

Martin denied any wrongdoing, saying allegations against him were "slanderous denunciations and lies" as he arrived for questioning at a police station in the capital Noumea.

Prosecutors opened an investigation after administrators in the territory's postal and telecommunications office reported serious irregularities in accounts related to 3G mobile telephone operators.

A lawyer and an accountant have also already been placed under investigation over the affair.

New Caledonia lies around 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) east of Australia. It is one of the richest territories in the South Pacific thanks to its nickel deposits, which are thought to account for some 25 percent of global reserves.

© 2011 AFP

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