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Belgian Parliament Allows Claes To Be Indicted on Fraud Charges

By Rick Atkinson
The Washington Post

Belgium's parliament voted overwhelmingly Thursday night to strip NATO Secretary General Willy Claes of immunity and permit his indictment on forgery and fraud charges in a defense corruption scandal. The decision was widely expected to lead to Claes's resignation Friday.

The vote, 97 to 52 with one abstention, followed a last-ditch plea by Claes in Brussels before the Chamber of Deputies, the parliament's lower house. The secretary general emerged grim-faced following his three-hour presentation to proclaim again his innocence and to defer all questions about his future until Friday.

But NATO sources said Claes is expected to submit his resignation in the morning to ambassadors of the 16-nation alliance and to meet privately with his staff before making a public announcement. His departure barely a year after taking office will leave NATO temporarily leaderless as the alliance is solidifying plans to send at least 50,000 combat troops to Bosnia to enforce a U.S.-brokered peace plan.

"This couldn't have come at a worse time," one NATO general said.

The parliamentary vote was needed to strip Claes of the immunity he gained as Belgian economics minister in the late 1980s. The corruption case will be referred to the Cour de Cassation, the country's highest court.

Claes has not been accused of personally enriching himself in the scandal, which involved kickbacks allegedly contributed to his Flemish Socialist Party by the Italian helicopter company Agusta and the French company Dassault. Rather, he stands accused of being privy to the funneling of kickbacks into party coffers in exchange for Socialist support in parceling out defense contracts. Claes's position gave him oversight responsibility for such transactions.

The 56-year-old secretary general has repeatedly declared his innocence, and both Agusta and Dassault have denied making improper payments. Claes survived intense pressure to step down last March after the forced resignation of his party colleague and successor as Belgian foreign minister, Frank Vandenbroucke.

But the issue resurfaced with even greater virulence earlier this month when the Cour de Cassation accused the secretary general of corruption and recommended that parliament revoke Claes's immunity so that he can be indicted.

Alliance sources say that in recent days Claes had been consumed by the scandal and his last-ditch effort to save both his job and his reputation.

But the special commission's recommendation of indictment took much of the steam out of Claes's defense, the sources said, and he publicly mentioned possible resignation last Saturday for the first time.