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Former Congolese Leader Pascal Lissouba on Trial - 2001-12-28

A court in Brazzaville put the former president of Congo, Pascal Lissouba, on trial in absentia Thursday, accusing him of treason and misappropriation of public funds.

Mr. Lissouba and four of his ministers are accused of profiting from an oil-for-aid deal with a U.S. oil company in 1993.

They signed a contract with the Occidental Petroleum Corporation to sell 50 million barrels of crude oil for $3 a barrel. The international market price was then $14 a barrel.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso, has led the calls for the former president to return the funds, denouncing what he describes as Mr. Lissouba's auctioning off of Congolese patrimony for personal gain.

Mr. Lissouba says he used the money to pay the salaries of thousands of civil servants who had not been paid for ten months.

Some ministers in the former administration face similar charges, but the High Court in Brazzaville Thursday dismissed charges against two of them - former finance minister, Clement Mouamba, and Claudine Munari, a former head of Mr. Lissouba's cabinet.

The court ruled that the two had simply carried out presidential orders, and were innocent themselves.

Congo's chief prosecutor says an international warrant has been issued for Mr. Lissouba's arrest.

Mr. Lissouba has lived in exile in London since 1997, when he was overthrown by current President Denis Sassou Nguesso, weeks before a presidential election in which both were due to run.

In 1998, militia loyal to Mr. Lissouba attempted to dislodge Sassou Nguesso. Hostilities ended in 1999 with a cease-fire agreement.

This is not the first time that Mr. Lissouba has been tried in absentia. In 1999, a Brazzaville court gave him a 20-year prison sentence for plotting to assassinate President Sassou Nguesso,

Oil accounts for 90 per cent of Congo's export revenue. Most Congolese governments have received advances on the sale of petroleum to ensure regular payment of state salaries.

This practice has led to a steady increase in Congo's debt, now estimated at over $6.5 billion.