INTERNATIONAL

New turn to `mansion' controversy

LONDON, AUG. 21. A fresh controversy over the ownership of a �4-million luxury mansion in Britain has revived allegations of corruption against the former Pakistan Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, amid renewed claims by Islamabad that he siphoned off Government money to buy the property when Ms. Bhutto was Prime Minister.

Late admission

After repeatedly denying that he had anything to do with the sprawling Rockwood House in Surrey — grandly called the "Surrey Palace" in Pakistan — Mr. Zardari has reportedly acknowledged that it belongs to him. A court in the Isle of Man, where the three companies through which it was purchased are registered, has been told by his lawyer that he is the "beneficial owner" of the property, and will shortly produce evidence of ownership.

The surprise admission came days after the house, set in 300 acres of prime land in the Surrey countryside, was sold by liquidators acting on behalf of the three companies to pay off the creditors, including decorators who refurbished the property. It is understood that the deal, subject to approval by the court, also provides for a part of the proceeds to go to the Pakistan Government.

Alan Perry, the British lawyer for Pakistan's National Accountability Bureau, was reported as saying: "These properties (Rockwood House and the surrounding land including two farms) were acquired during a period when Ms. Bhutto was in office. They have just been sold by the liquidator. The Government of Pakistan has been saying for years that these properties were acquired with the benefit of corruption, and that the real beneficiaries behind the (Isle of Man) trusts and companies were Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Zardari."

Persistent denials

Since the allegations were first made eight years ago, both Mr. Zardari, who is serving a jail sentence in Pakistan on corruption charges, and Ms. Bhutto have consistently denied the ownership of Rockwood House. "How can anyone think of buying a mansion in England when people in Pakistan don't even have a roof over their heads?" Mr. Zardari once asked. Ms. Bhutto said that she had been told "ten times" by her husband that he had nothing to do with it. A builder, Paul Keating, has claimed that renovations alone cost over �1million.