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Mungo Soggot, South African journalist
"It is not entirely clear what the hearings will be focusing on"
 real 28k

Monday, 11 June, 2001, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
South Africa arms inquiry under way
Gripen fighter aircraft
Gripen advanced fighters are part of the arms deal
Public hearings have opened in South Africa into a $6bn arms deal, which has been at the centre of allegations of fraud and corruption at high levels in the government in Pretoria.

The case at Pretoria High Court was due top start two weeks ago, but was immediately adjourned at the request of the Defence Ministry, which said it needed more time to prepare.

Thabo Mbeki
Prsident Mbeki's leadership has come under criticism
The government has been accused of a cover-up - something it denies.

Correspondents say it has become one of the most highly charged issues facing President Thabo Mbeki's administration and has provided ammunition for wider criticism of his leadership.

The court, which has now adjourned until Tuesday, rejected an application for live television and radio broadcasts of the proceedings saying cameras would be an invasion of the privacy of the witnesses.

The hearing, to be presided over by a three-man panel, is expected to last two months and will dig deep into the financial and procedural details of the deal, South Africa's biggest arms transaction in seven years.

Only one of the accused has been publicly named so far - chief whip of the governing African National Congress Tony Yengeni, who played an important role in the committee awarding the contract.

'Whitewash'

Signed in 1999, the deal involves companies from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Britain, France and South Africa. Amongst the firms supplying weapons are Saab, BAE Systems and Thomson-CSF.

As part of the agreement, South Africa is supposed to receive inward investment of $13bn which the government says will create 65,000 jobs.

Opinion on the hearings remains divided, with supporters describing the inquiry as a genuine effort to provide background.

But critics dismiss it as a whitewash that could undermine and prejudice the three separate criminal investigations already under way.

The government of President Thabo Mbeki has been accused of attempting a cover-up - among others by ruling out using the country's most effective investigation unit in the probes which have been set up.

The government says the armed forces urgently need modernisation, but opponents say the country cannot afford it, and the money would be better spent elsewhere.

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See also:

28 May 01 | Business
BAE faces African bribery probe
08 Apr 01 | Africa
SA arms deal scandal widens
05 Apr 01 | Africa
SA arms deal under investigation
11 Jan 01 | Africa
ANC begins soul-searching
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: South Africa
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