Gilbert Sedbon/PARIS and Herman de Wulf/BRUSSELS

AN INTERNATIONAL arrest warrant has been issued for Dassault Aviation chairman and chief executive Serge Dassault by Belgian magistrates. He is charged with involvement in a BFr90 billion ($2.8 billion) bribe of Belgian Government ministers in exchange for contracts to buy Dassault Electronique Carapace electronic-warfare equipment for Belgian Lockheed Martin F-16s.

The warrant follows Dassault's refusal in late April to appear before a judge in the Belgian city of Liege for further questioning on the bribes case. He had originally been questioned by in Paris in November 1995.

The move against the Dassault chief comes in the wake of the extradition from Brazil of former Agusta chief executive Rafaelo Teti, in connection with a case being investigated by the same Belgian judge over the payments of bribes to local politicians for a contract to supply 46 Agusta A109 helicopters for the Belgian Army.

The Agusta scandal, discovered during investigations into the murder of former Belgian minister Andre Cools, has led to the resignation of Belgian politicians including the then defence minister Guy Coeme, and NATO secretary-general Willy Claes, who was foreign minister at the time of the 1988 deal. Former Belgian air force chief of Staff, Lt Gen Jacques Lefebvre, a lobbyist for the French defence industry in Brussels following his retirement, committed suicide after Dassault's alleged involvement in the scandal became known in 1995.

Serge Dassault denied the allegations on 9 May, saying: "I am a complete stranger to this transaction." He said that he was willing to be questioned again, but only in France. The Dassault head referred to the experience of other French industrialists in recent Belgian investigations as the reason for not responding to the summons.

He refers, in particular, to the arrest of Didier Pineau-Valencienne, chairman and chief executive of France's Schneider engineering group. Valencienne, jailed in May 1994, was subsequently released on bail. He refused the Belgian judge's second request to attend a hearing in Belgium, and now has to conduct his international business from within France.

Dassault could face a similar fate to that of Valencienne, being unable to travel outside France without facing arrest - the French Government never extradites nationals on corruption charges.

The warrant arrives just as Dassault has his sights fixed on heading the giant aerospace company likely to be created out of a merger of Dassault Aviation - controlled by Serge Dassault - and state-owned Aerospatiale, which is being forced through by the French Government.

Dassault says that the arrest warrant concerned commissions paid to intermediaries for a 1989 contract between Dassault Electronique and Belgium, but he has had no responsibility for that company since 1986, although he is honorary president.

A Belgian parliamentary report in October 1995 stated that there were "sufficient indications"of corruption, forgery and fraud committed within the framework of the purchase of equipment for fighters from the electronics company.

Former Socialist Party secretary Luc Wallyn, arrested in the Agusta affair and later released, alleges that Dassault paid him BFr90 million. Some BFr60 million had been paid to the Flemish wing of the Belgian Socialist Party.

Source: Flight International