Belgian PM under pressure to resign

December 18, 2008

, BRUSSELS, December 18 – Several Belgian opposition parties called on Wednesday for Prime Minister Yves Leterme to resign over accusations his office tried to influence justice officials over the rescue of financial services group Fortis.

Dutch-language opposition parties urged Leterme to go after a letter was published in which he acknowledged "contacts" between his people and the prosecutor\’s office as well as the husband of a judge in charge of the case.

"There is no question of any attempt or intent to influence the course of procedures," Leterme assured in the letter to Justice Minister Jo Vandeurzen, which was also circulated at parliament.

However, Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L\’Echo reported that Paul Dhaeyer, a replacement for the prosecutor in the commercial court, contested such claims.

The newspapers reported that a member of Leterme\’s office called Dhaeyer when he was preparing a recommendation for the court and told him testily: "We are concerned about your recommendation. Are you really aware of your responsibility?"

Leterme, a 48-year-old Flemish Christian Democrat, only came to power in March after many months of political crisis.

His letter met with doubts even among parties in the ruling majority with Flemish liberals Open VLD saying they would follow the debate before deciding whether they still had "confidence in the prime minister," according to Belgian news agency Belga.

Before a vote of confidence can be held, a probe has to be conducted into whether pressure was exerted on justice officials, Belga reported a parliamentary source as saying.

The Belgian government is currently mired in a complex legal battle with minority shareholders of the banking and insurance group over the sale of Belgian assets to French bank BNP Paribas.

The group was dismantled in October with the Dutch state taking over its Dutch banking and insurance assets and the Belgian government taking over its Belgian banking business.

BNP Paribas then agreed to buy 75 percent of the Belgian banking business of Fortis from the state and Belgian insurance operations from the parent company.

In a case brought by Fortis\’ minority shareholders, a Brussels Court of Appeal ruled that they should have been consulted on the sale to BNP Paribas and froze the deal, leaving the company\’s fate uncertain.

Shares in Fortis, considered among the bluest of Belgian blue chips until the group ran into trouble, were widely held by individual investors, who saw their investments nearly wiped out when Fortis hit the rocks.

Belgian newspaper Le Soir French reported on Wednesday that BNP Paribas has warned the Belgian government that it would withdraw its bid for Fortis\’ Belgian assets unless the deal is concluded quickly.

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