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Ignore politics in Africa probe, French courts told

PARIS, May 6 (Reuters) - A judicial inquiry into the assets of African presidents with close ties to the French government should proceed free of political pressures, the anti-corruption activists who initiated the case said on Wednesday.

A magistrate launched the investigation on Tuesday in response to a complaint filed by the French arm of Transparency International, an independent anti-graft watchdog, against the presidents of Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea and their relatives.

It is politically inconvenient for France because Presidents Omar Bongo of Gabon and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo Republic are its oldest and closest allies in Africa, and France has important economic interests in their oil-producing countries.

Citing a 2007 police inquiry that found the ruling families had acquired luxury homes and cars worth tens of millions of euros in France, Transparency International alleged that these assets were bought with embezzled public money.

The presidents deny any wrongdoing.

(For a factbox, please double click on [ID:nLR93828].)

A magistrate who is independent from government, Francoise Desset, on Tuesday admitted Transparency International as a plaintiff and opened a preliminary investigation.

The Paris prosecutors’ office, which answers to the justice ministry and opposes the probe, is considering an appeal. That could block proceedings for months and potentially for good.

“An appeal aimed at putting a lid on this investigation ... would make a mockery of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s commitments at the G20 against tax havens, financial crime and international fraud,” said William Bourdon, Transparency’s lawyer.

FRENCH INTERESTS

He called on the prosecutors to resist any pressure linked to French interests in Africa and allow the probe to proceed.

French group Total TOTF.PA is the leading oil producer in Gabon and Congo Republic and many other French firms, public and private, have long-term contracts in the two former colonies.

Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso have both enjoyed friendships with successive French presidents and backing from Paris at testing moments of their careers. Analysts say the judicial probe could mark a turning point in these relationships and prompt a backlash against French interests in the two countries.

(For an analysis, please double click on [ID:nLR519071].)

Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, has much looser ties with Paris, but is of strategic interest as a growing oil exporter, number three in sub-Saharan Africa.

Daniel Lebegue, president of the French arm of Transparency International, said it was the first time sitting heads of state were targeted in a judicial probe on suspicion of embezzlement.

“It has opened the door for similar actions in other countries,” he told a news conference.

Lebegue said it was also a first for Transparency International, one of the most prominent anti-corruption groups in the world, to be admitted as a plaintiff and it would open new perspectives for the organisation to launch legal action.

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