May 7, 2009 / 4:49 PM / in 9 years

Paris prosecutor tries to halt African graft probe

PARIS, May 7 (Reuters) - France’s public prosecution office appealed on Thursday against a magistrate’s decision to launch an investigation into corruption allegations levelled against three African presidents and their relatives.

The prosecutors’ office answers to the justice ministry and has always opposed the probe, raising accusations that the French government wanted to avoid upsetting the oil-producing states -- Gabon, Congo Republic and Equatorial Guinea.

“The appeal has been presented,” said Jean-Claude Marin, a member of the Paris prosecutor’s office.

A magistrate, who is independent from government, opened the probe earlier this week into whether the three presidents had used embezzled funds to buy luxury homes and cars in France.

Omar Bongo of Gabon, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea deny any wrongdoing. The appeal will block the probe and is likely to take around six months to hear.

The case against the African trio was initiated by the French arm of Transparency International, an independent anti-graft watchdog. It had urged the French government to let the investigation continue, seeing it as an important test case.

Presidents Bongo and Sassou-Nguesso are France’s oldest and closest allies in Africa.

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

Daniel Lebegue, president of the French arm of Transparency International, said this week that if the probe went ahead it would open the way for similar moves in other countries. (Reporting by Thierry Leveque; writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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