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Frenchman returns to China to 'help' Bo probe

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- A Frenchman believed to have close ties to disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai has returned to China to help the probe into the country's biggest political scandal in decades, Cambodia said Wednesday.

Architect Patrick Devillers, arrested in Phnom Penh last month at Beijing's request, was freed on Monday and boarded a flight for Shanghai the following day “by his own will,” deputy national police chief Sok Phal told AFP.

“He said he is going there to be a witness,” the official said, adding that China had asked for his release. “The French Embassy supported this 100 percent.”

Cambodian Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said Devillers left for China voluntarily “after consulting with legal experts,” and said Beijing had given assurances the Frenchman would be allowed to return within 60 days “if there are no problems.”

“So we're all waiting to see the promise from China,” Khieu Kanharith told reporters.

While his exact role is unclear, Devillers, 52, is understood to have been a close business associate and friend of Bo and his wife Gu Kailai, key figures in a political drama that has drawn worldwide attention.

China had requested Devillers' extradition, and his arrest on June 13 for unspecified offences sparked a diplomatic tussle between Beijing and France, which warned Cambodia not to send the architect anywhere without a clear legal basis.

Last week Cambodian government officials said Beijing had promised to grant Devillers, who was never formally charged with anything, legal immunity in return for cooperating with its investigations.

That announcement came a day after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in Beijing, though it remains unclear whether Devillers' case was discussed.

French Embassy officials in Phnom Penh and Beijing declined to comment.

The Bo scandal, which first came to light in February, has exposed deep divisions within the Chinese Communist Party ahead of a crucial, once-in-a-decade leadership transition, analysts say.

Bo, the former leader of the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing, is being probed for corruption, while Gu has been detained for suspected involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood last year.

Bo had been widely tipped for promotion to the top echelons of the Communist Party before the scandal spectacularly derailed his political career.

Devillers is believed to have first crossed paths with the couple in the 1990s, when Bo hired him to do some architectural work in the Chinese city of Dalian.

According to media reports, the Frenchman also set up a short-lived firm with Gu in Britain in 2000.

The Financial Times newspaper reported in late June that Devillers, through a front company, helped Bo's family acquire two luxury London apartments, now worth over US$3 million, in 2002 and 2003.

Devillers lived on-and-off at one of the properties until 2010, according to the report.

After divorcing his Chinese wife, with whom he has a son, Devillers settled in Cambodia about five years ago, becoming a low-key but well-liked member of the expatriate community in Phnom Penh.

China has huge sway in Cambodia and the allies have an extradition treaty that allows suspects to be held for up to 60 days, although Phnom Penh had said it would need to see evidence of Devillers' wrongdoing before handing him over.

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