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Spymaster in French Government Scandal Refusing to Testify

A spymaster who holds many clues to a scandal that has shaken the French government is refusing to testify to help crack the complex case, saying he cannot trust investigators because they already leaked too much to the press.

Newspapers have repeatedly cited the spymaster's notes and past depositions to suggest that President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin tried to smear a rival. But Gen. Philippe Rondot said in an interview published Sunday that his leaked quotes were taken out of context and twisted by the media.

He insists that neither Chirac nor Villepin did anything wrong.

"Today, the press is choosing to publish only certain excerpts, with questionable aims, to try to implicate the president, Dominique de Villepin and (Defense Minister) Michele Alliot-Marie," Rondot told Le Journal du Dimanche. "It's unacceptable."

Rondot said he would not testify, even if dragged to see investigating judges by force. Eric Morain, Rondot's lawyer, confirmed Rondot would boycott planned hearings May 18 and 22.

"It's not shirking responsibility," Morain told France-Info radio. "He sees it as showing disgust with a justice system that has become a spectacle."

The scandal has unfolded day-by-day in newspapers, with characters and plot details worthy of a detective novel: spying missions, claims of manipulation, allegations of bribes and secret bank accounts.

Nicknamed by some as the "French Watergate," it centers on claims that Villepin and Chirac ordered an unfounded corruption investigation into rival Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, a presidential hopeful. Sarkozy and other prominent figures were falsely accused of having secret bank accounts in Luxembourg clearing house Clearstream for bribes from a 1991 sale of frigates to Taiwan.

CountryWatch: France

"There was never any question of investigating Nicolas Sarkozy or the other politicians whose names appeared on the listings," said Rondot, a Defense Ministry employee in charge of special operations at the time. A Middle East expert, Rondot helped in the capture in Sudan a decade ago of the Venezuelan-born terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. He is now retired.

The scandal has threatened to disgrace 73-year-old Chirac at the end of his long political career. Villepin is fending off demands for his resignation and allegations that he went to illegal extremes to discredit Sarkozy, his chief rival for the governing party's nomination in presidential elections next year. Both deny the charges.

While Villepin insists he never ordered a probe of Sarkozy, he has said he asked Rondot to look into allegations that the frigates sale in 1991 was tainted by corruption.

Rondot says police and judges have treated him in a way that was "humiliating."

"I was called a liar, they threatened me and considered me a crook," he said. "That shocked me."

But Rondot admitted that he got a few facts wrong in testimony because he wasn't allowed to look at his notes.

His past testimony before investigators, as well as notes seized from his house — published notably in Le Monde newspaper — have been a key source of suspicion against Chirac and Villepin. Last week, judicial officials opened an inquiry to find out who turned over the confidential information to the press.

"Today, I no longer believe in the investigation by the judges," Rondot said. "There have been too many leaks, too much manipulation, too many incomplete citations of my writing or words."