Page last updated at 07:17 GMT, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 08:17 UK

Lawsuit on Africa leaders 'valid'

(From left) Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang, Congo's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Gabon's President Omar Bongo
The case could strain French ties with the three African oil-producing nations

A French magistrate has ruled that a lawsuit against three African leaders accused of embezzlement is admissible.

Presidents Omar Bongo of Gabon, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Republic of Congo and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea deny any wrongdoing.

The French arm of anti-corruption group Transparency International has accused them of buying luxury homes and cars in France with African public funds.

The judge's ruling opens the way for a judicial investigation into the case.

Correspondents say the case could strain French relations with the three oil-producing countries.

Gabon and Republic of Congo are former French colonies, while Equatorial Guinea is a growing oil exporter.

The Paris prosecutors' office, which answers to the justice ministry, opposed the opening of the case on 20 April.

It has five days to appeal against Magistrate Francoise Desset's decision, AFP news agency reports.

A 2007 French police investigation found the leaders of the three countries and their relatives owned homes in upmarket areas of Paris and on the Riviera along with luxury cars, including Bugattis, Ferraris and Maseratis.

Mr Bongo came to power in Gabon in 1967 and is Africa's longest-serving ruler.

Mr Obiang has faced coup attempts since he seized power in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea in a coup three decades ago.

Mr Sassou-Nguesso took power in Republic of Congo for a second time in 1997 with help from Angolan troops.

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