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Ex-premier cleared in slander case

Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin has been acquitted by an appeals court of charges that he took part in a murky smear campaign against his arch-rival, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A lower court acquitted Mr Villepin of charges of complicity in slander over the so-called Clearstream affair last year, but the prosecution appealed and was seeking a 15-month suspended sentence against the former premier.

Wednesday's acquittal caps the pitched six-year battle between Mr Villepin - who is best known internationally for his impassioned 2003 United Nations speech against the US invasion of Iraq - and Mr Sarkozy, a fellow conservative.

"After six years of unprecedented fighting tooth and nail, after six years of difficulties for my family, the justice system has recognised my innocence for a second time," the silver-haired politician told journalists outside the courtroom.

The Clearstream case riveted France's political scene after a mysterious list surfaced naming clients who allegedly held secret accounts at a Luxembourg clearing house.

The accounts were purportedly created to hold bribes from a 1991 sale of warships to Taiwan, and other shady income. The list included names of prominent French public figures, including Mr Sarkozy, but was later deemed a hoax.

Mr Villepin was given the fake list and asked a retired general to investigate its origins. The indictment said Mr Villepin should have alerted judicial authorities to the scam earlier, and he was tried for complicity in slander.

The appeals court judges explained Wednesday's acquittal, saying it had not been proven that Mr Villepin knew the lists were fake, nor had any role in the scam.

Officials from the Elysee presidential palace said Mr Sarkozy would not comment on the acquittal.

The rivalry between Mr Sarkozy and Mr Villepin grew out of their time as ministers in former president Jacques Chirac's cabinet, where both were considered top contenders for the presidency.

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