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Probe into Algerian money laundering questions Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu

Net widens into investigation of failed tycoon Rafik Khalifa's business interests

France's two biggest movie stars, Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, are being questioned this week over their links to a failed Algerian tycoon wanted for suspected money laundering, police said Thursday.

Deneuve, the 61-year-old doyenne of French cinema, spent nearly five hours Wednesday being interrogated by a special Paris police unit investigating embezzlement claims against the fugitive businessman, Abdelmou-nene Rafik Khalifa, officers said.

She was notably asked at length about 50,000 euros ($68,000) in cash she received from Khalifa in 2003 to promote the launch of his short-lived Khalifa TV satellite channel based in Paris, they said.

Depardieu, the 56-year-old star of "Green Card" and "The Return of Martin Guerre" among more than 100 other films, will be questioned next week, police added. The famous actor was seen at several receptions thrown by Khalifa, who was known to surround himself with jetsetters and celebrities.

Sting, Naomi Campbell, Bono, Melanie Griffiths and Pamela Anderson were among guests spotted at a September 2002 bash in his French Riviera villa launching Khalifa TV, which was also attended by Depardieu and Deneuve. Depardieu had fiercely defended Khalifa from accusations that the businessman had raised his money from dealings with Algeria's powerful army generals who are believed to tap their country's oil wealth. In September 2002, an angry Depardieu accused one politician levelling the charges, Greens MP and former French presidential candidate Noel Mamere, of being "racist."

Khalifa, the 38-year-old son of a former Algerian minister, saw his group of companies collapse in 2003 under debts and claims of embezzlement. He never explained the source of the estimated one billion euros that had let him build an empire that included an airline, catering, car rentals, graphic design, construction, a bank and two television channels, one each in London and in Paris, from nothing seven years ago. The group started unravelling in February 2002, when three Khalifa Bank managers were arrested at Algiers airport with two million euros ($2.7 million) in undeclared cash stuffed into suitcases. Days later Algerian authorities placed the bank under the control of state auditors. France - where Khalifa did much of his business - soon opened a preliminary criminal investigation into suspected money laundering.

Last September, French police questioned the liquidator of Khalifa Bank, Moncef Badsi, who claimed there were financial links between the shady dealings by the bank in Algeria "and spending made by the heads of the group in France," a source close to the investigation said. Interpol, acting at the request of the Algerian government, issued an international arrest warrant for Khalifa in August 2003, warning he "may be dangerous." He is believed to be living in Britain, which has no extradition treaty with Algeria.

Beirut,01 10 2005
Redaction
The Daily Star
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