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 Tuesday, 7 January, 2003, 18:37 GMT
Sharon denies corruption claim
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (centre) watches an army exercise on Tuesday
Sharon is keeping an eye on polls ahead of the election

Supporters of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, have denied allegations that he has been involved in bribery and fraud.

The claims come just a few weeks before Israel's general election.

The accusations against Mr Sharon appeared in the Ha'aretz newspaper.

The charges relate to a series of complex campaign finance and repayment deals which go back to 1999.

'Smear campaign'

For some time now, the deals have been under investigation.

Now, Ha'aretz says that the Israeli prime minister and his two sons are suspected of bribery and fraud.

At a news conference held in Tel Aviv, Mr Sharon's campaign manager, Eyal Arad, denied the allegations made by Ha'aretz.

He criticised the police for apparently leaking details of its own investigation.

Mr Arad said that the allegations and the leaks were aimed simply at bringing down the Israeli prime minister.

Losing support

It has all touched on a sensitive subject, which has become a central election issue here - corruption.

Ariel Sharon's Likud Party has been hit by widespread allegations of bribery during primaries held last month.

The party's wide lead in opinion polls has eroded as a result.

Now, attention has turned from the prime minister's party to himself and his family.

And that is potentially more damaging.

Ariel Sharon will hope that his campaign manager's denials stop the allegations and end talk of corruption.

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  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Barbara Plett
"The scandal is certainly a blow to the Prime Minister"

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