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Ex-Senegalese president denies he stole cars, art

The ex-president of Senegal won praise from around the world earlier this year when he gracefully conceded defeat, even picking up the phone to congratulate his longtime rival, a move that momentarily erased the memories of a violent election season.

The goodwill lasted less than a week, however. Just days after former President Abdoulaye Wade left the presidential palace this March, local TV stations began showing footage of empty rooms in the palace.

Accusations surfaced that Wade and his inner circle had made off with nearly all the cars in the government's garage, as well as art, furniture and other assets belonging to the state.

Wade broke his two-month-old silence on Friday in order to tell his side of the story to reporters, who were invited to meet him in the rococo villa where he is now living. He said that the dozens of cars that he and members of his party took were bought with his own funds, or else those of his party, and do not belong to the state. He said, moreover, that the two paintings he removed from the presidential palace were gifts offered to his wife by the king of Morocco.

And he categorically denied newspaper reports saying he and members of his administration had transferred 400 billion francs ($800 million) into foreign bank accounts.

The new government of Senegal issued a communique last month, giving 72 hours to former members of his administration to return the cars, or face having them seized.

"When I left the palace, they called me every name in the book — car thief, art thief, vandal and embezzler of public assets ... I understand perfectly that when one ruler succeeds another, there is a need for exorcism ... I was ready to put up with certain things. It's human nature. But too much is too much. I will not allow my honor to be touched," said Wade, who sat in an upholstered chair next to his couture-wearing wife, as a small crowd of supporters occasionally clapped and cheered.

"I bought (these cars)," he said, explaining he paid around 600 millions francs ($1.2 million) for the dozens of luxury cars. "It's not the state. It's me. ... I gave them to my supporters, to marabouts. These vehicles belong to me. I can give them to whomever I want!"

Wade lost the March 25 runoff election by a landslide, a humiliating blow for a man that had once been so popular he could draw crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

For weeks leading up to this year's presidential election, protesters calling for Wade to step down clashed with police, in violence that is deeply uncharacteristic for this normally peaceful republic on Africa's western shore.

One of the main complaints against him is that he allowed corruption to soar during his 12 years in office, at the same time that spiraling food prices made it so that large numbers of his countrymen could only afford to eat once a day.

The villa of marbled floors and fake Corinthian columns where he met reporters, for example, belongs to one of his former ministers. Houses in the tony neighborhood are known to sell for millions of dollars, and yet a minister's salary does not exceed $10,000 a month, according to local media.

The capital of this nation of 12 million is dotted with multistory buildings, complexes, and posh villas that are known to be owned by the men and women that were in Wade's inner circle.