Europe favours Mubarak assets freeze but needs Egypt request

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European nations on Monday backed calls to freeze assets held abroad by former president Hosni Mubarak but held off taking action until Egypt submitted a request.

Going into talks of the 17 nations that share the euro, the head of the eurozone area, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, said he favoured a freeze on assets held by Mubarak on the continent.

Asked if he would follow Switzerland's lead Friday in slapping a freeze on Mubarak, Juncker gave a categorical "yes."

But an EU spokeswoman, echoing Britain's position, said the ball was in Cairo's court.

"We are in contact with the Egyptian authorities. We will take appropriate measures if this issue comes up, when necesssary," said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

She recalled that an EU freeze on assets held by ousted Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family and associates was decided "in consultation with the Tunisian authorities."

"This is a process, we would need an assessment and a decision by the 27 member states," she added.

In London, Britain likewise deflected growing pressure to move on the issue, saying it could only act if it received a request from Cairo.

Newspapers reported that Mubarak has assets worth millions of pounds in Britain, but a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron added that any action should come as part of an international arrangement.

"As I understand the situation on asset freezing, there has to be some international effort... and a request has to be made" by the Egyptian authorities, Cameron's spokesman told reporters.

Diplomats told AFP at the weekend that broad agreement was in place among the 27 EU nations that, should Egypt take action to recover Mubarak wealth, and Brussels be invited to follow suit, the EU would implement the freeze.

Switzerland on Friday ordered a freeze on any assets belonging to the 82-year-old and his entourage but British officials have said they would likely take action through an international body such as the EU.

"Countries act together to freeze assets so it normally comes through some international gathering," the spokesman said.

The European Union on Friday slapped asset freezes on 46 associates of ousted Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, an EU official told AFP.

Earlier this month, European governments froze the assets of Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi as well as 46 other people, essentially members of the two families.

Tunisia's former leading couple and their inner circle are suspected of having pocketed a large chunk of the country's wealth over years and of taking personal stakes in much of the economy.

In London, the spokesman would not comment on whether there was a possibility that Mubarak, whose wife Suzanne is Welsh, could go into exile in Britain.

Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said it was "aware" of reports about Mubarak's assets being in Britain but said it had not yet received any request to take action.

"We are aware of the situation, we are taking an interest in developments, and we will be ready to respond to any request for assistance in tracing assets that might be made," an SFO spokesman told AFP.

Such requests would normally be made by foreign governments or agencies through Britain's Home Office, or interior ministry, which would then pass them to the fraud office, the spokesman added.

Business minister Vince Cable on Sunday called for "concerted international action" on Mubarak's assets and said the government would act against any British bank found to have helped the ousted leader improperly move funds.

© 2011 AFP

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