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French probe alleged Pakistani role in bombing

PARIS, June 19 (Reuters) - French magistrates investigating an attack in Pakistan blamed on Islamist militants that killed 11 French nationals in 2002 are looking into allegations it was linked to corrupt deals, lawyers for the victims’ families said.

A coach carrying French naval engineers and technicians was bombed as it left a hotel in Karachi in May 2002. The attack killed 14 people in total.

Pakistani authorities at first blamed Islamist militants and two men were sentenced to death for taking part in the attacks, but their convictions were overturned on appeal in 2003.

French investigating magistrates Marc Trevidic and Yves Jannier informed the families of the victims on Thursday that they no longer believed the scenario of an Islamist attack was credible, lawyers for the families told reporters.

The lawyers said Trevidic and Jannier had told them they were looking into allegations that the attack was a retaliation against France from unnamed Pakistani officials over bribes linked to a defence contract that were promised but never paid.

“The investigating magistrates told us that they believed this scenario was extremely credible,” lawyer Olivier Morice told reporters.

The French government declined to comment. Trevidic and Jannier cannot speak publicly about their investigation because the rules of their position forbid it.

The investigating magistrates obtained a top secret internal memo in October 2008 from a state-owned military shipbuilder which contains the allegations, Morice said.

The memo, copies of which were shown on French media on Friday, says French and Pakistani officials connived to take bribes as part of the sale of French Agosta submarines to Pakistan in the mid-1990s.

According to the memo, some of the kickbacks that were paid to French officials ended up in the electoral campaign funds of then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, a rival of Jacques Chirac ahead of the 1995 presidential election, a judicial source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Asked about the allegation by French state television, Balladur said: “As far as I am aware, everything was completely above board. I have nothing more to say. If anyone has any proof, let them speak up.”

The secret memo says France stopped paying the bribes after the 1995 election, won by Chirac, and that Pakistani officials kept asking for them for several years.

The allegation is that they eventually lost patience and organised in retaliation the attack on the bus full of French engineers, who were working on the Agosta submarine project. (Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Philippa Fletcher)