London (AFP) - A former prime minister was drawn into the complex web of historic child sex abuse allegations in Britain Monday, when the police watchdog announced an investigation involving 1970s leader Edward Heath.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said it would investigate a claim from a retired policeman that prosecution of a person accused of child sex abuse in the 1990s was dropped when they threatened to expose Heath, who died in 2005.
Police appealed for anyone with information about the former Conservative leader, who was prime minister from 1970 to 1974 and led Britain into the European Economic Community.
"If you have been the victim of any crime from Sir Ted Heath or any historical sexual offence, or you are a witness or you have any information about this, then please come forward," said Superintendent Sean Memory.
Heath is the most senior figure to be named in connection with claims of abuse by prominent figures, which have surged since top BBC television presenter Jimmy Savile was exposed as a prolific and predatory paedophile after his death in 2011.
While the IPCC's investigation is into alleged corruption rather than whether Heath committed a crime, the story dominated the Tuesday front pages of Britain's newspapers.
One tabloid, the Daily Mirror, ran a front page interview with an anonymous man who claimed to have been abused by Heath when he was aged 12, only realising the man's identity four years later when he saw his photograph in a newspaper.
The Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, to which Heath left his property when he died, said it was certain the former prime minister would be exonerated.
"We welcome the investigation by Wiltshire Police, which we wholeheartedly believe will clear Sir Edward's name and we will cooperate fully with the police in their inquiries," the statement said.
- 'Threatened to expose' -
Police in Wiltshire, the southwestern English county where Heath was a long-term resident in the city of Salisbury, said that a retired senior police office came forward at the end of 2014.
"The allegation is that a trial was due to take place in the 1990s and information was received in that trial that Sir Ted Heath was involved in the abuse of children," said Memory.
"The allegation is from the result of that information, that the trial never took place."
The IPCC is to investigate whether a prosecution was not pursued "when a person threatened to expose that Sir Edward Heath may have been involved in offences concerning children" according to a spokesman for the police watchdog.
It will also investigate whether officers subsequently took any steps to investigate the claims about Heath, who was knighted in 1992.
The probe by the IPCC is separate to a major, judge-led inquiry into child sexual abuse in British institutions such as the BBC, the National Health Service, children's homes and schools that was opened last month.
British police said in May they had received allegations of historic child sex abuse against 261 public figures, including 76 politicians.
The inquiry led by a judge into allegations of paedophilia in institutions has cited estimates that around one British child in every 20 has been sexually abused.