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Allyn Fisher-Ilan / Reuters | October 15 2006

JERUSALEM - Israel said today its police force had acquired evidence suggesting President Moshe Katsav had raped and molested women who worked for him.

Katsav, whose position is largely ceremonial, has denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a "public lynching without trial or investigation".

In a joint statement capping weeks of investigations, Israel's Justice Ministry and national police said:

"There is prima facie evidence of a number of incidents in which several women who worked under his authority were involved, that the president carried out sex crimes of rape, sexual molestation by force and without consent."

Katsav was also suspected of "a violation of a law against eavesdropping" and involvement in fraud, it said, summing up findings presented by a team of police investigators.

A police source said Katsav was suspected of installing bugging devices to hear employees' phone conversations.

Israel's Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz will decide whether to bring charges against Katsav after prosecutors review the evidence, the statement added. Mazuz will likely make a decision in about two weeks, the police source said.

Katsav, 60, born in Iran, is married with five children and six grandchildren and has been president since 2000. He is immune from prosecution unless he is impeached by parliament.

An indictment would be unlikely to have any significant political repercussions.

But the scandal adds to a list of events that have darkened the mood in Israel, where a cabinet minister has been indicted for a forced kiss and the government is under fire for its handling of a war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

The president has been under pressure for weeks to step down over the affair, which has been under investigation since August. He faced new calls to quit after the police statement.

"The president must resign," Education Minister Yuli Tamir said on Israeli television. "If he doesn't do so, I believe a process will be launched to force him to resign."

Several women parliament members threatened a walkout if Katsav goes ahead with plans to attend the opening of the winter session of the legislature tomorrow.

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