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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid the groundwork on Monday for a libel suit against the main opposition Liberal Party after articles on the Liberals' Web site charged that he knew of an alleged Conservative attempt to bribe a member of Parliament.
Harper's lawyers served notice of libel against Liberal leader Stephane Dion, two of his deputies and the party itself, which ironically has been keeping Harper's minority Conservative government in power.
The five-page letter demands that Dion pull two articles from the Web site www.liberal.ca and apologize for "unfounded attacks" on Harper's reputation and for "falsely claiming that...Harper acted illegally."
Referring to articles with headlines "Harper Knew of Conservative Bribery" and "Harper Must Come Clean About Allegations of Conservative Bribery, Liberals Say," the notice says: "These statements are false and devastatingly defamatory."
Dion dismissed the demand to apologize or to take down the Web pages. "It is going to take much more than the threat of a lawsuit to stop us from getting to the truth," he told Parliament.
The allegations center on attempts in 2005 to persuade independent Member of Parliament Chuck Cadman to vote with opposition parties to defeat the minority Liberal government.
Cadman, who died of cancer soon afterward, ended up voting for the Liberals. But the party alleges that Conservative officials tried to bribe Cadman, with Harper's knowledge, even though they say Harper knew this was immoral and criminal.
The furor over the affair broke last week with the release of excerpts from a book that says the Conservatives offered the dying man a C$1 million life insurance policy if he would vote against the Liberals.
Harper denies having directed any party official to make any kind of financial deal with Cadman and said there was no truth to reports of an attempted bribe. He said Cadman had denied in a 2005 television interview any offer of a bribe.
"The truth is that this will prove to be in court the biggest mistake the leader of the Liberal Party has ever made," Harper said.
But another leading Liberal, Ken Dryden, said that if it were true that money had been offered to bring down a government, Harper must resign.
Harper's government needs the support of at least one opposition party to stay in power. The government, elected in January 2006, is the fourth-longest minority government in Canadian history.
On Monday evening, the House of Commons will vote on a previously scheduled Liberal amendment to the federal budget. Dion repeated on Monday the Liberals would not topple Harper over that.
"I will not start to speculate about elections," he told reporters. "The prime minister must come clean."
The Liberals have generally trailed the Conservatives in opinion polls, though no public polls have been released since the Cadman allegations emerged.
Editing by Peter Galloway