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Suspected fraudsters on trial for impersonating French minister

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Paris (AFP)

Suspected fraudsters went on trial in Paris Tuesday accused of impersonating foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a bizarre scam that saw one even wear a mask in video conferences.

The two main suspects are charged with organised fraud and usurping a person's identity in an outrageous scheme that allegedly allowed them to extort more than 50 million euros ($55 million) from wealthy political, business, and even religious figures.

The Franco-Israeli pair, Gilbert Chikli, 54, and Anthony Lasarevitsch, 35, are being tried as the alleged masterminds of the group while five others face lesser complicity charges.

The scheme -- which took place from 2015-2016 when Le Drian was defence minister -- involved fraudsters who pretended to be him asking politicians and executives for urgent financial aid for secret operations by the French state.

One would even appear in video conferences behind a fake official desk, donning a silicone mask of Le Drian and wearing a suit, no doubt hoping the grainy transmission quality would dispell any suspicion.

Chikli and Lasarevitsch, both present in the defendants' box, denied the charges as the hearing got underway.

- 'Punish the crooks' -

The fake "minister" made calls by telephone and video link to more than 150 targets -- of whom three were successfully duped.

The money was often said to be for ransom payments for hostages or anti-terror operations.

Prosecutors say the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, was conned by a Le Drian impersonator in 2016 and made five transfers for a total 20 million euros to Poland and China. Three of the payments were frozen, but 7.7 million euros disappeared.

A few months later, Turkish business magnate Inan Kirac was allegedly convinced to wire more than $47 million for what he thought was ransom money for two journalists held hostage in Syria.

Le Drian told French media over the weekend that he found the affair no laughing matter, especially as payments for freeing hostages were invoked in the fake calls.

"My first reaction was one of surprise when I found out that this story existed," he said.

"I was then shocked to see how human feeling -- as these interventions were made on the basis of the question of hostages -- could be exploited for a financial scam.

"I hope that justice will take its course and ensure that these crooks are punished as they should be," he added.

Le Drian, a senior ally of President Emmanuel Macron, became foreign minister in 2017 after serving five years as defence minister.

- 'Game of scamming' -

In 2015, a French court convicted Chikli in absentia to seven years in prison for similar scams in 2005 and 2006, in which he posed as business chief executives.

On the run, he was arrested two years later with Lasarevitsch in Ukraine. On their phones, police found pictures of a silicone mask of Prince Albert II of Monaco, suggesting another hoax was in the planning stages.

Six of the defendants, including Chikli and Lasarevitsch, are charged over both the Le Drian scam and the suspected plot to target Prince Albert, while the seventh is charged solely over the alleged Monaco plot.

Others targeted, albeit unsuccessfully, included Gabon's President Ali Bongo, French AIDS charity Sidaction, the chief executive of the Lafarge cement company and the archbishop of Paris.

In an interview with French television in 2010 over previous scams, Chikli said he was intrigued by the "game" of scamming.

His story inspired a 2015 film, "Je Compte Sur Vous" (I'm Counting on You).

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