© AFP/Getty ImagesThierry Gaubert, left, an associate of President Sarkozy, was arrested last week. Princess Hélène has made damning accusations against her husband
The aristocratic wife of a former aide to President Nicolas Sarkozy has publicly accused her estranged husband of making frequent trips abroad in the 1990s to collect "bags of cash" for illegal political funds.

In her first public comments on a deepening political scandal, Princess Hélène of Yugoslavia, 50, also said she had been threatened by her husband with losing custody of her children and "ending in an asylum" if she spoke too freely to independent investigators.

Princess Hélène, the great-grand-daughter of the last king of Italy, has become one of the key figures in the so-called "Karachi affair" since her husband, Thierry Gaubert, and Nicolas Bazire, another close associate of Mr Sarkozy, were arrested last week and formally accused of handling kick-backs on multibillion-dollar arms contracts.

In interviews with Le Monde newspaper and Europe 1 radio at the weekend, the Princess confirmed allegations that she made to police and an examining magistrate earlier this month.

She claimed Mr Gaubert, 60, made five or six trips a year to Geneva from 1994-5 to pick up "bags full of cash", adding that Mr Gaubert, who was No 2 in Mr Sarkozy's private office at the time, always returned via London to avoid "custom checks at the Franco-Swiss border".

The Princess said her husband had spoken of handing the bags of money to Mr Bazire, who was campaign manager for the then prime minister, Édouard Balladur, when he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1995.

Mr Bazire, now a senior luxury goods executive, was best man at President Sarkozy's wedding to Carla Bruni in 2004.

An examining magistrate is inquiring into allegations that the Balladur campaign was illegally funded by kick-backs from commissions on French arms sales to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

A separate judicial investigation is looking into allegations that the cancellation of the commissions by President Jacques Chirac in 1996 led eventually to a bomb attack on a bus in Karachi in 2002 in which 15 people, including 11 French submarine engineers, died.

The Élysée Palace has rejected as "politically motivated calumny" any suggestion that Mr Sarkozy was linked to illegal campaign financing.