Tuesday, October 11, 2005

NEW YORK — French authorities are expected to charge a retired U.N. ambassador today in connection with his role in the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Jean-Bernard Merimee, who represented Paris at the United Nations from 1991 to 1995, was arrested Monday.

He was a senior member of the French diplomatic service, also having served as ambassador to Australia and Italy.

From 1999 to 2002, he worked as a special adviser to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, helping create a system to disburse European Commission payments to the United Nations.

In New York, the French Mission to the U.N. said it would cooperate with any investigation.

“Justice is working,” said a French diplomat there. “The judiciary is independent, and if they want anything from us, we are happy to collaborate.”

He said the mission had long since returned papers related to Mr. Merimee’s U.N. tenure to the national archives.

There have been questions about Mr. Merimee’s influence on the Iraq oil-for-food program since his misspelled name turned up on the Iraqi Oil Ministry list that implicated former program chief Benon Sevan. The program was suspended in 2003.

The so-called “Al Mada list,”published in Baghdad nearly two years ago, named foreign diplomats, businessmen and journalists who supposedly had been issued vouchers for discounted oil, which could be resold at a profit to oil companies.

U.S. arms inspector Charles Duelfer noted in his report to Congress last year that Mr. Merimee was allocated 11 million barrels of oil from December 2001 to March 2003, according to Agence France-Presse.

However, Mr. Duelfer described the transaction as “not performed,” and it was not clear whether Mr. Merimee was a willing participant.

Mr. Merimee, 68, is one of the highest-ranked officials to be indicted by the French judge investigating the oil-for-food scheme.

French Sen. Charles Pasqua, a former confidant of President Jacques Chirac and a former interior minister, also was questioned by investigators. Although he has immunity from prosecution as a senator, several of his aides have been charged.

A spokesman for Mr. Annan said the United Nations would not comment on the specifics of the case.

“We have made it clear that we support the efforts of national authorities who wish to pursue proceedings into activities of their own nationals who may or may not have been involved in the oil-for-food program,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

Sanctions were imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in August 1990, bringing great hardship to the Iraqi people.

The Security Council created the oil-for-food program in 1996, after years of tough negotiations with dictator Saddam Hussein, to allow the government to export oil and buy humanitarian goods with the proceeds.

From early 1997 until March 2003, when the U.S.-led bombing campaign intensified, Iraq sold more than $64 billion worth of oil and imported the food, medicine and staples on which more than three-quarters of Iraqis had come to depend.

All contracts were vetted by U.N. procurement specialists and members of the governments seated on the Security Council. France became a swing vote on the sanctions issues, sometimes siding with the United States and Britain and sometimes with China and Russia.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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