Ivory Coast authorities announced last night that Emmanuel Dioulo, mayor of Abidjan and deputy in the National Assembly, had fled to Belgium to avoid facing criminal charges of embezzlement and fraud.

During recent weeks, Dioulo has been at the center of a political and financial scandal that pitted his commodity trading firm, Cogexim, against the National Agricultural Development Bank. The bank charged Dioulo's company with failing to repay over $32 million in loans used to finance Cogexim's purchase and export of cocoa and coffee, the principal exports here.

Since the initial court hearing into the bank's claims against Dioulo, the state-controlled press has attacked the mayor repeatedly, prompting Dioulo and his sympathizers to charge that the scandal is "an organized attempt to politically destroy" him. Dioulo has frequently been cited as a prime candidate for the vice presidency in elections scheduled this year.

Since 1980, Ivory Coast has been without a constitutional successor to octagenarian president Felix Houphouet-Boigny. As the promised designation of a vice presidential candidate has drawn nearer, rivalries between top members of the political elite have become increasingly apparent.

Dioulo, in particular, antagonized a number of political figures by proposing the transfer of the capital from Abidjan to the president's birthplace, Yamoussoukro, a move seen by many as an attempt to gain favor with the president.

More recently, a letter from Dioulo to Houphouet-Boigny caused a sensation. In asking the president's intervention in settling the bank's claims against his company, Dioulo listed a series of financial scandals involving the upper crust of Ivorian society, asking rhetorically "why those implicated in such scandals are the most virulent in their attacks on me."

Dioulo's flight from the country followed a provisional ruling in the initial court case in which he was ordered to repay $14 million while awaiting a third audit of Cogexim to determine the existence of further debts. The decision -- described as "too lenient" in the national press -- caused the political bureau of the ruling party to intervene. Defense Minister Jean Konan Banny attacked the decision on television as a "mockery of justice" and announced that the government would ask that Dioulo's parliamentary immunity be lifted so that "swift and total justice" could be administered.

Unofficial reports maintain that Dioulo's house was under surveillance, and that he was allowed to leave the country so that a criminal trial would not provide a forum for his allegations against his political enemies. However, in announcing his flight, the government-controlled press reported Dioulo's threat to publish a "white paper" to determine the culpabilities of the various parties, "with no one being untouchable." The government has responded that Dioulo's trial will still be held.