El Salvador arrests ex-president over graft accusations

San Salvador (AFP) - Police in El Salvador arrested the country's ex-president Elias Antonio Saca and six other suspects including three serving government officials on Sunday for alleged embezzlement and money laundering, authorities said.

Saca, 51, and six other former officials from his government were detained in the early morning "on charges of various crimes," it said on Twitter.

Saca was a member of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) while he was president of El Salvador from 2004 to 2009.

He was expelled from ARENA at the end of 2009 after the party blamed him for its defeat in presidential and legislative elections that year.

Saca is accused of embezzlement, money laundering and links to illegal groups, the prosecutors' office said.

It give no further details of the accusations for the time being.

A self-made businessman, Saca was a well-known journalist before becoming president.

He was seen as a strong ally of the United States during his time in power.

The other suspects arrested include former public waterworks official Cesar Funes, 46, and ex-presidential communications chief Julio Rank, 65.

Police said those two were detained along with Saca in an exclusive restaurant.

Salvadoran media reported that the three were there to celebrate the wedding of one of Saca's sons.

Official sources said the suspects were in custody in the premises of the anti-drugs squad in the capital San Salvador.

- 'US pressure' -

El Salvador is a Central American country of six million people, bordered by Guatemala and Honduras.

It is stricken by poverty and violent crime involving drug gangs.

The other three detained suspects are Pablo Gomez, Francisco Rodriguez Artega and Jorge Alberto Harrera.

They worked in Saca's government and are currently financial officials in the government of leftist President Salvador Sanchez.

The suspects could face sentences of up to 15 years in jail for embezzlement and money laundering, according to El Salvador's penal code.

Saca was already facing charges dating to early this year, when he was accused of embezzling some four million dollars.

His leftist successor as president, Mauricio Funes, faces similar charges. He obtained political asylum in Nicaragua in September, after saying he feared for his life in El Salvador.

Political analyst Juan Ramon Medrano said the corruption investigations were likely partly due to pressure from the United States.

Washington has demanded action on corruption in return for financial aid to boost development and fight crime in El Salvador and its two poor neighbors.

"It is good that pressure from the United States is succeeding in cleaning up suspected corruption in the country," Medrano told AFP.

"But pressure should also be applied to those who evade taxes and have drowned the country fiscally."

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