Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (Reuters)
Gold ingots worth up to €72m (£62.2m) were smuggled out of Tunisia via France by former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, despite EU sanctions freezing the family assets, a report has claimed.
Some 1,800 ingots were reportedly taken by Trabelsi from the country's gold reserves to fund the family's exile in Saudi Arabia just as the regime teetered on the brink of collapse in January 2011.
Accusations that Trablesi, a former hairdresser nicknamed the Queen of Carthage because of her lavish lifestyle as first lady, had smuggled gold out of the country have emerged before but an investigation by French regional newspaper Nice-Matin is the first to reveal the French route.
Shortly after Ben Ali was toppled, a number of Tunisian government "mules" posing as passengers took suitcases each filled with 40kg of gold through various French airports, said the report.
For more than a year, up to five mules a week covertly carrying gold bullion cleared custom controls at airports in Marseilles, Nice and Paris.
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They then went on to Dubai or Istanbul.
EU members states, including France, agreed to freeze Ben Ali's assets from February 2011.
"We never usually see gold coming through here," an officer at Nice Airport told Nice-Matin.
"So when the third Tunisian came forward saying he carried 10, 20 or 40 kilos in ingots, we told ourselves that we had a little problem. When we found out that the same thing was happening in Marseilles or Paris, we told our superiors. But we were never asked to intervene."
The last gold shipment reportedly landed in Nice from the Tunisian coastal town of Djerba a week ago.
The French Directorate-General of Customs told Le Figaro that "gold transfers in the EU are not illegal if declared".
In July 2012, a Tunisian court sentenced in absentia Ben Ali and Trablesi to 35 years in jail each for embezzlement, following accusations that they had unlawfully seized large amounts of cash and jewellery before fleeing to Jeddah.
Ben Ali was also earlier sentenced to life imprisonment for the killing of protesters during the Jasmine Revolution.
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