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Former top officials in Sierra Leone charged with graft

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Two former top officials in Sierra Leone were arrested on Thursday as part of a crackdown on graft by new President Julius Maada Bio’s government.

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Anti-Corruption Commission head Francis Ben Kaifala said Victor Foh, ex-President Ernest Koroma’s vice president, has been charged with various counts of public fund mismanagement, including the embezzlement of money meant to help poor Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mansaray Minkailu, the mines minister under Koroma, has been charged for his role in the sale of a stake in a mining project to Koroma’s nephew for an artificially low price, Kaifala told Reuters.

“The fight against corruption is just that - a fight. And if you resist us we will take you to war,” he told a news conference. “If you try to hide from the law, you cannot be surprised when we come for you.”

Lawyers for Foh and Mansaray did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment. Both men were to be released on bail later on Thursday, Kaifala said.

A separate commission appointed by Bio alleged on Wednesday that corruption was rampant under Koroma, including the theft of state property and the funnelling of contracts to officials’ relatives and friends.

Koroma, who was president from 2007 until this April, denied the allegations in the report saying it was a malicious attempt to smear his image.

“I wish to now categorically state ... that all the allegations of corruption and other negative practises levied against my person in that report are complete nonsense,” he said in the statement, adding that he had asked his legal team for advise, and may sue for defamation.

His APC party dismissed them as a politically-motivated witch hunt by Bio, who defeated the APC’s candidate in an election in March.

“We hope that this indictment is not part of the current government’s plans to divert public attention from the real issues affecting this country,” APC press secretary Cornelius Deveaux told Reuters.

Kaifala said more people would be indicted over the next month. His commission was reopening investigations into allegations that the previous government mishandled funds during the response to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, he added.

West African governments often accuse political rivals of corruption. Those accused in turn frequently say authorities use the legal system for political ends.

Bio campaigned on promises to tackle graft and revive an economy devastated by a slump in commodity prices and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in the region.

The presidential commission’s report said corruption and economic mismanagement under Koroma had left Sierra Leone’s economy on the brink of collapse, with external debt equal to almost half of gross domestic product.

Writing by Aaron Ross, Sofia Christensen and Bate Felix; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg