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Ex-Fortis chiefs charged with market manipulation

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Two former chief executives of Fortis have been charged in Belgium with misleading financial markets before the group's collapse.

The Belgian-Dutch bank and insurance group was rescued and carved up in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis.

Jean-Paul Votron and Filip Dierckx become the first directors to face criminal charges in Belgium over banking failures during the crisis, which also forced bailouts for Franco-Belgian Dexia and Belgium's KBC .

The two were charged by investigating Judge Jeroen Burm but no details on the charges have been released and it was not clear when any court appearances might take place. Belgium's judicial authorities declined comment.

BNP Paribas Fortis confirmed in an email on Friday that Dierckx, its chief operating officer and CEO of Fortis when it was rescued in September 2008, had been charged, adding that it had full confidence in him.

Votron, Fortis CEO from Oct 2004 to July 2008, told Belgian public broadcaster VRT late on Thursday he was not guilty.

"I feel I am not guilty due to one simple fact. I did my work. A CEO works with a mandate, given by the board and on top of that is a chairman, Mr. Lippens," he said, referring to Maurice Lippens, Fortis chairman from 1990 until the bailout.

"Fortis never manipulated the market. Fortis aimed, in a very difficult situation in 2007 and 2008, to provide the best possible communication at that moment," Votron said.

Fortis, once one of Europe's largest banks, came unstuck after paying a top-of-the-market 24 billion euros ($31.2 billion) to buy the Dutch operations of ABN AMRO just before the credit crunch struck.

Shareholder groups have complained Lippens and Votron repeatedly assured markets that the Fortis's balance sheet was strong and that it would not be changing its dividend policy.

At the end of June 2008, it scrapped its interim dividend and sold new shares to prop itself up.

A Dutch court found Votron and former chief financial officer, Gilbert Mittler, guilty in February of misleading shareholders from May to June 2008, but cleared Lippens. Both have appealed and the case is still pending.

Fortis was finally split up in October 2008, a week after an 11.2 billion euro capital injection failed to calm markets. The Dutch nationalized Fortis's activities there, while BNP Paribas bought a majority in Fortis's banking operations in Belgium.

The rump Fortis business, renamed Ageas , was left as an insurance group centered on Belgium with life and non-life elsewhere in Europe and Asia as well as a host of legacy issues to clear up related to Fortis's collapse.

(Editing by David Holmes)

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