NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - IMF chief and possible French presidential contender Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and charged with an alleged sexual assault, including an attempted rape, on a hotel maid in New York City, police said on Sunday.
Strauss-Kahn, a key player in the world's response to the 2007-09 financial meltdown and in Europe's ongoing debt crisis, was removed from an Air France plane minutes before it was to take off for Paris from John F Kennedy International Airport on Saturday, New York police spokesman Paul Browne said.
Browne said Strauss-Kahn was formally arrested at 2:15 a.m. (0615 GMT) on Sunday on charges of criminal sexual act, attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment.
A lawyer representing Strauss-Kahn, Benjamin Brafman, told Reuters in an email that the International Monetary Fund chief "will plead not guilty." Brafman made no further comment.
A 32-year-old maid filed a sexual assault complaint after fleeing the $3,000-a-night hotel suite at the Sofitel in Times Square where the alleged incident occurred around 1 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Saturday, Browne said.
Strauss-Kahn, 62, who has been considered a possible Socialist Party candidate in the French presidential election in April and May 2012, appeared to have fled the hotel after the incident, the police spokesman said.
Browne told Reuters an account of events which led to the state charges against Strauss-Kahn. "She told detectives he came out of the bathroom naked, ran down a hallway to the foyer where she was, pulled her into a bedroom and began to sexually assault her, according to her account."
"She pulled away from him and he dragged her down a hallway into the bathroom where he engaged in a criminal sexual act, according to her account to detectives. He tried to lock her into the hotel room," Browne added.
Browne said Strauss-Kahn does not have diplomatic immunity. He is expected to be brought before state court on Sunday.
According to New York state law, a criminal sexual act includes forcibly compelling someone to engage in oral sex. The offence carries a potential sentence of 15-20 years, the same as attempted rape. Unlawful imprisonment carries a potential sentence of three to five years.
IMPACT ON IMF
The allegation will be a major worldwide embarrassment to the IMF, which has authorized billions of dollars in lending programs to troubled countries and has played a major role in the euro zone debt crisis.
It follows the announcement on Thursday the IMF's No. 2 official, John Lipsky, plans to step down in August when his term ends.
The IMF managing director has yet to say whether he will run for president, although French opinion polls put him as a clear winner over conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy if the two faced off in an election.
"The NYPD realized he had fled, he had left his cell phone behind," Browne said. "We learned he was on an Air France plane. They held the plane and he was taken off and is now being held in police custody for questioning."
After being removed from the aircraft's first-class section, he was taken to the police department's Special Victims Unit in Manhattan, known to viewers of a hit U.S. television show based on its work.
The woman, who has not been named, "was brought by EMS (emergency medical services) to the Roosevelt Hospital, where she was treated for minor injuries," Browne said.
Strauss-Kahn was on his way to Europe for a meeting on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the European debt crisis and then was to attend a euro zone finance ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday.
Strauss-Kahn took over the IMF in November 2007 for a five-year term scheduled to end next year.
Before that, he was a French finance minister, member of the French National Assembly and a professor of economics at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris.
The IMF declined to comment and IMF board officials told Reuters they had not been informed officially of the incident.
Strauss-Kahn has faced controversy before. In October 2008, he apologized for "an error of judgment" for an affair with a female IMF economist who was his subordinate. An inquiry cleared him of harassment and abuse of power, although he was warned by the fund's board of member countries against further improper conduct.
Strauss-Kahn apologized to the woman, Piroska Nagy, and his wife, French television personality Anne Sinclair, as well as to IMF employees for the trouble he had caused.
Since taking over the IMF, he has won plaudits for putting the fund, the world's main overseer of the global economic system, at the center of global efforts to cope with the financial meltdown of 2007-09.
Strauss-Kahn introduced sweeping changes at the global institution to ensure that countries swamped by the financial collapse had access to emergency loans. He was pivotal in brokering a bailout program for Iceland, Hungary, Greece, Ireland, and recently Portugal.
He has also overseen internal changes that have given emerging market countries, such as China, India and Brazil, greater voting power in the institution, and weighed into thornier issues by urging China to allow its currency to rise in value in a dispute with the United States.
Based in Washington at the IMF's headquarters, Strauss-Kahn has continued to spend a lot of time in France, fanning speculation he was considering re-entering politics as a presidential candidate.
Lipsky's planned departure and now Strauss-Kahn's detention raises questions about a possible leadership vacuum should the IMF chief be charged by U.S. authorities or face possible discipline by the IMF board.
(Reporting by Christine Kearney and Noeleen Walder; Editing by Peter Cooney, Todd Eastham and Jackie Frank)
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