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Ex-French min under investigation in UN oil probe

Written by: Staff

PARIS, Apr 6 (Reuters) Former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua was placed under investigation by a French inquiry into corruption in the UN's oil-for-food programme in Iraq, a judicial source said.

Right-winger Pasqua, still a member of the upper house of France's parliament, was among those named in a separate U.N.-established inquiry last year as receiving oil vouchers from Iraq that could be sold on for a commission.

The French court is investigating him for ''trafficking influence'', a judicial source said. Under French law, being placed under investigation is the last step before formal charges can be pressed.

Pasqua is one of almost a dozen French political, diplomatic and other personalities wanted for questioning by French judge Philippe Courroye in the inquiry.

The 78-year-old has always maintained he is innocent. ''It is absolutely scandalous, given that there is nothing implicating me in this affair,'' he said today.

According to the UN-established independent inquiry, Pasqua received around 10 million barrels of oil in 1999 in the form of vouchers or drawing rights that could be claimed from companies with the capacity to extract Iraqi crude.

Under the alleged scam, some of the commission from the sale of oil vouchers could then be returned to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, allowing him to gain hard currency, which was denied under UN sanctions imposed in 1990 after Baghdad's troops invaded Kuwait.

The independent inquiry also named former French UN Ambassador Jean-Bernard Merimee as being given favours by Saddam in his quest to get the U.N. sanctions lifted.

The oil-for-food programme, which began in December 1996 and ended in 2003, was aimed at easing the impact of the sanctions.

It let Iraq sell oil to pay for food, medicine and other goods but was dogged by allegations of fraud and charges that Saddam used it to buy influence in the West.

The investigation has caused havoc at the United Nations, where officials say the world body was unequipped to handle a humanitarian programme of that size.

Reuters PG VP0038

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