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Palestinian officials seize accounts, assets in corruption probe

Attorney general says 25 in custody

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian prosecutors have frozen bank accounts and seized assets in a widening corruption probe of dozens of government officials suspected of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, according to the attorney general.

But the sweep appears to fall short of a major postelection housecleaning in the corruption-riddled Palestinian Authority.

A Palestinian legislator who has collected information on dozens of officials and transferred it to prosecutors said two Cabinet ministers were among the corruption suspects but they are not currently under investigation.

Growing voter frustration over corruption and official mismanagement is seen as a key reason the Islamic militant group Hamas won last month's Palestinian parliamentary elections. This week, Attorney General Ahmed al-Meghani said he suspected officials have stolen billions of dollars from public coffers in the past decade.

Among the suspects, 25 are in custody and at least six have fled to Arab countries, including four to Jordan, Meghani told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday evening. Among the suspects is a deputy minister who allegedly misappropriated more than $100,000, according to documents shown to the Associated Press.

Meghani has refused to release the names of suspects. Asked whether he was only going after lower-level officials, he said: ''The coming days will prove the contrary."

The attorney general said he is investigating dozens of suspects and that the probe is widening.

''Every day, we get new proof [of wrongdoing]," he said, citing as an example the Palestinian Petroleum Authority, which held the monopoly for the import and sale of fuel products in the West Bank and Gaza. The authority, which operated with little supervision for a decade, was brought under control of the Finance Ministry in 2003.

The attorney general said the investigation of the Petroleum Authority alone yielded 30 suspects. Palestinian security officials said the former head of the authority, Harbi Sarsour, is imprisoned in the West Bank.

Meghani said he has frozen the bank accounts and assets of dozens of suspects, but declined to give details. ''It is a temporary freeze until we finish the investigation and the trials," he said.

He noted that one former suspect -- Palestinian TV chief Hisham Miki, who was killed by gunmen in 2001 -- was believed to have stolen $23 million in public funds, and that his London apartment was seized during the investigation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to clean up the Palestinian Authority and his Fatah Party, both infested with corruption, but progress has been slow.

Palestinian legislator and anticorruption campaigner Azmi Shuaibi said no Cabinet ministers or security chiefs were being investigated, even though he had transferred information on the possible corruption of two Cabinet ministers to the prosecutors' office.

Shuaibi said he believes Abbas has been hampered by holdovers from the era of his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

''It's not enough to have a president who has the will to do this," Shuaibi said. ''When he looked around him, he found only people who were part of Arafat's system."

Arafat had permitted his inner circle to engage in corruption to solidify his power. For years, the former Palestinian leader spent money without supervision, giving loyalists control over profitable government monopolies and disbursing millions to supporters.

Many Arafat loyalists remained in office after Abbas was elected president last year.

The attorney general said he has opened an office at the Rafah terminal between Gaza and Egypt, which is run by Palestinians under European supervision. Among other things, prosecutors at Rafah are to enforce the travel ban imposed on corruption suspects.

Meghani said the Palestinian foreign minister and Palestinian ambassadors were trying to persuade the suspects who had fled to return voluntarily. If they refuse, ''then we will demand their return by force," he said.

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