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Angola tries to shield leader from arms case

Angola is pulling out the stops to bury an arms case now before French courts in which President José Eduardo dos Santos is suspected of receiving millions in kickbacks, sources say.

Not that you’d know it here. State media are silent on the case, which accuses top French politicians of violating a ban on selling arms to Angola in the 1990s, at the height of the Southern African nation’s civil war.

Some allege that behind the scenes, the government is using legal and diplomatic pressure to scupper the case, in which French prosecutors allege that 30 officials, including Dos Santos, received tens of millions in bribes.

As one of Africa’s top oil producers, Angola’s pressure packs more punch than it did a decade ago, when the socialist government was locked in a devastating civil war with Unita rebels.

Just before the trial opened in Paris, a lawyer for Angola’s government asked the court to toss out the case by invoking French confidentiality laws protecting military secrets of foreign countries.

”If the government has moved to that point, it is because they have something to hide,” said Adriano Parreira, president of the small Independent Angolan Party. ”When this case was announced, the government was telling us that they had nothing to fear. And if now they’re trying to block it, that only means they have lied to us once more.”

The scandal known as ”Angolagate” dates back to 1993, when a peace deal fell apart and fighting with Unita resumed. Dos Santos sought to buy arms to battle the rebels, but France refused.

Prosecutors say Dos Santos then turned to French businessman Pierre Falcone and Israeli-Russian billionaire Arcady Gaydamak, who shepherded shipments of 420 tanks, 150 000 shells, 12 helicopters and even six warships over five years.

The scandal also implicates elite French politicians, including former interior minister Charles Pasqua and Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, son of late president Francois Mitterrand.

No Angolans are in the dock, although prosecutors say 30 officials including Dos Santos were involved.

”I hope the French judiciary will not be impressed by the French government’s interest in Angolan oil or any other outside pressure,” Parreira said.

Jean-Bernard Curial, a former Africa adviser, told a Paris court this week that Dos Santos — whom he has known for two decades — had appealed for help and arms during the peak of the fighting.

”He told me, we are surrounded, the electricity has been cut off and Unita is just 20km away. I need food and arms, at least for my bodyguards,” Curial said, adding that he had passed on the message to Mitterrand’s son.

Jean-Christophe Mitterrand told the court that the conversation had indeed taken place but underlined that the arms were mentioned almost in passing after a list of essential requirements including food and medicine.

Dos Santos was ”deeply wounded” to be ”treated like an arms smuggler” and broke contact with Paris at the start of the case, one French official said.

Since his election last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to restore relations.

He visited Luanda in May, saying he wanted ”to turn the page on past misunderstandings” in a country that now produces two million barrels of oil a day, rivalling Nigeria as Africa’s top producer.

”Dos Santos and Sarkozy praised each other, and [French oil giant] Total was very happy with it,” said Antonio Setas, an analyst and editor with the weekly Folha 8.

”Sarkozy came here to eliminate the ill-will that Angolagate has caused and to resume relations. He came here as the director of Angolagate’s funeral,” he added.

”Eventually the name of Dos Santos may pop up, not as defendant but as witness,” Setas added. ”Of course he will never be summoned to testify.” — Sapa-AFP

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