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Belgian Investigation (Sabena) of sairgroup continues...
On the eve of the Paris Air Show, we explore the corrupt and allegedly corrupt methods that have boosted past sales

IN SEPTEMBER last year, a fraud squad, led by Jean-Claude Van Espen, a Belgian magistrate, raided Airbus's headquarters in Toulouse. �They wanted to check whether there was possible falsification of documents, bribery or other infractions as part of the sale of Airbus aircraft to Sabena,� says Mr Van Espen's spokesman. The team of 20 Belgian and French investigators interviewed several Airbus employees during its three-day stay in Toulouse and carted away boxes of documents.

In November 1997 Sabena had approved an order for 17 Airbus A320s (narrow-bodied aircraft) which it did not need. Even more oddly, it had doubled the order at the last minute to 34, a move which helped trigger the airline's collapse four years later.

Though nominally controlled by the Belgian government, Sabena was run by the parent company of Swissair, SAirGroup, which had owned a stake of 49.5% since 1995 and which also went bust in 2001. A former Sabena manager, who arrived after the Airbus order was placed, says that the planes were not needed: �It was a fatal business decision.� A Belgian parliamentary commission's recent report confirms that the Airbus order was a big cause of Sabena's collapse.

Mr Van Espen's separate criminal investigation is continuing. According to the report, it started in October 2001 after Philippe Doyen, then a Sabena employee, lodged a complaint. Among other things, he suggested to Mr Van Espen that he interview Peter Gysel, a former Swissair employee now working at Airbus, who put together Sabena's deal with Airbus. Mr Gysel denies any impropriety. The former Sabena manager says: �I never got the slightest whiff that the decision was driven by kickbacks, side-payments and so on. But I cannot rule anything out.� Neither does Mr Van Espen.

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