August 8, 2015 / 6:48 PM / 3 years ago

France opens bribery investigation into Gabonese official

PARIS (Reuters) - France is investigating Gabon President Ali Bongo’s chief of staff on suspicion of taking a bribe to help secure a contract, a judicial source said on Saturday.

French police had detained Maixent Accrombessi for questioning last Monday, a move sharply condemned by Gabon, but released him after finding that he had diplomatic immunity.

Accrombessi is suspected of accepting a bribe from Marck, a French firm that makes military uniforms, in connection with Gabon’s award of a contract to Marck at the end of 2005, the source said.

For the man suspected of bribing Accrombessi, Marck chairman Philippe Belin, prosecutors have gone a step further by formally placing him under investigation, the source added. Marck did not immediately answer the phone or respond to an email seeking comment late on Saturday.

After returning home, Accrombessi, one of Bongo’s closest advisers, said on his Facebook page that he was at the disposal of the French justice system, provided Gabon’s sovereignty and his rights were respected. He did not make an explicit denial.

Gabon’s presidency had said Accrombessi’s detention was “linked to an affair that has nothing to do with (his) capacities as chief of staff” and that it had been meant “to humiliate (him) and his public function”.

Gabon had excellent relations with France for decades under a system known as “la Francafrique”, where Paris granted political and military support to long-serving presidents in its former African colonies exchange for commercial favors.

But the friendship has cooled since Ali Bongo succeeded his father Omar as president in a disputed election in 2009, not least because France is investigating the Bongo family’s assets.

France’s Total is one of the biggest oil producers in Gabon, which pumps around 230,000 barrels per day.

Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Writing by James Regan; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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