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Bulgaria arrests officials on corruption charges

Written by: Staff
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SOFIA, July 5 (Reuters) Bulgarian police today arrested the former head of Sofia's heating utility on money laundering charges and a senior government tax official accused with extortion and bribery, they said today.

The Socialist-led government has stepped up its efforts to put corrupt officials behind bars after Brussels warned it may delay its EU entry by a year to 2008 if Sofia fails to show tangible results in combating rampant graft.

Prosecutors charged Valentin Dimitrov, the former director of the state-owned heating plant with money laundering and tax evasion following a recent signal from an Austrian bank that he had a deposit of 1.6 million euros in it.

''We have enough data proving it is about money laundering,'' said Boiko Naidenov, spokesman of the prosecutor's office. He did not elaborate.

Dimitrov could not be reached for comment.

Dimitrov was sacked last month following a financial audit of the Sofia municipality, the majority owner of the plant, showed he had misused over 15 million levs of the firm's funds - part of it to install massage chairs in his office, the municipality spokeswoman said.

In a similar sweep police arrested a tax official after catching him red-handed with a bribe of 135,000 levs.

Police said the money was the first chunk of 1.5 million levs the inspector extorted from a local businessman to re-schedule his tax dues. They had no further details.

The EU has rapped Sofia and its slow judiciary for scoring too few investigations, charges and convictions against suspected criminals, including powerful crime bosses who diplomats say control huge parts of the economy.

Bulgaria has mobilised its efforts to put criminals behind bars ahead of a crucial September report which should recommend whether it can join without delay in 2007.

Last month, parliament passed new legislation on combating money laundering, giving authorities more power to look into suspicious bank operations.

REUTERS SHB RK2059

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