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NATO Chief Fights for Survival

October 11, 1995

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Fighting for his political life, NATO chief Willy Claes has a final chance to defend himself against bribery charges Friday before a parliamentary commission rules on whether to put him on trial.

Calls for his resignation are increasing, and Claes’ hold on his position as head of the 16-nation military alliance would become even more tenuous if the panel allows Belgium’s highest court to prosecute him.

The special parliamentary commission could rule as soon as this weekend and the full parliament could take action next week.

In a report to the panel, the high court said it wants to prosecute Claes for alleged involvement in the Agusta scandal. The case centers on bribery allegations against Claes’ Socialist Party when he was economy minister.

``The commission will hear Mr. Claes Friday afternoon,″ said Raymond Langendries, head of the panel, in a statement Wednesday.

The latest legal moves come at a crucial time for the alliance. NATO is trying to promote expansion of its membership to the east and prepare for enforcement of a peace agreement in Bosnia.

Claes’ troubles began almost as soon as he took over as NATO chief a year ago. Last May, investigators questioned Claes for two days and searched his home and office.

The commission on Tuesday night listened to Jacques Velu, chief prosecutor of the high court. Velu is trying to convince parliament to lift Claes’ immunity. Because Claes was a minister at the time of the 1988-89 scandal, the decision to put him on trial must be made by the full legislature.

Claes was economy minister when the Italian aircraft firm Agusta allegedly paid $1.72 million in bribes to obtain a $330 million government defense contract in 1988. As minister, he was involved in approving the contract.

In addition, the high court wants to ask Claes about $2 million in bribes the French firm Dassault allegedly paid to the Socialist Party to win a contract to upgrade Belgium’s F-16 jet fighters.

Critics say the case has hurt NATO’s credibility and damaged Claes’ ability to function as the top representative of the military alliance. But in the past year Claes has received firm official backing from the NATO member-countries.

The scandal has rocked Belgian politics for years. Four high-ranking Socialist politicians, including the ministers of foreign affairs and transportation, have resigned because of their alleged involvement.

The 1991 murder of a leading socialist politician and the suicide last March of a former air force chief also have been linked to the scandal.

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