October 14, 1995
Web posted at: 11:27 a.m. EDT (1527 GMT)
BRUSSELS, Belgium (CNN) -- NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes is now a step closer to facing indictment on corruption charges in his native Belgium. A parliamentary commission recommended Saturday that the former economics minister face charges of accepting kickbacks from a defense contractor in the late 1980s.
The full parliament must agree with the commission before Claes' immunity from prosecution can be lifted. That vote could take place as early as Thursday. Claes said he was "absolutely stunned" by the commission's vote, adding that "it is still a bit early" to decide if he will step down as NATO's head.
Behind closed doors, Claes testified for six hours at the commission before the vote. He is accused of awarding a $330 million contract in 1988 to an Italian aircraft manufacturer knowing that the company, Agusta, had paid a nearly $2 million bribe to Claes's Flemish Socialist Party. Claes has maintained his innocence since the investigation began in February 1993.
Other Belgian officials have also been implicated in the case -- four ministers have resigned since the beginning of the year, and the suicide of an air force official earlier this year is believed connected to the scandal.
If the Belgian parliament votes for indictment next week, Claes will most likely resign to concentrate on defending himself. NATO could choose his successor at a meeting of foreign ministers at the United Nations next weekend.
Along with delicate negotiations on relations with Russia and a push to add eastern European members, Claes is currently heading efforts to organize a 60,000-strong military force in Bosnia. That force -- the largest in Europe since World War II -- will be charged with implementing any peace agreement made by Bosnia's warring parties.
Claes has received high marks for his work since assuming the Secretary-General's role a year ago, particularly his handling of the NATO forces in Bosnia.
"Willy Claes has earned his spurs," said U.S. Ambassador Robert Hunter. "NATO in the last few weeks for the first time in its history went to war. ...Willy Claes led the alliance successfully from beginning to end."
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