A BUSINESSMAN has returned to the North-East from Africa to answer an allegation he took part in a £51,000 fraud involving stolen telephone payment cheques.

John Saunders came before Durham Crown Court yesterday, on a bench warrant issued after failing to appear at a hearing two years ago at the same venue.

He allegedly handled two of 20 cheques previously stolen by a member of staff at British Telecom's payment centre in Durham, between April and August 1996.

The court was told yesterday that Mr Saunders had returned after working in the Gambia, in west Africa, and voluntarily appeared in court after surrendering his passport.

Aisha Wadoudi, for Mr Saunders, said he invested everything he had into his business in the Gambia. "While he was aware of his trial date, he couldn't take the risk of losing his life savings to stand trial. He was told at the time it would be a long time off, and so he couldn't afford to wait, although he has voluntarily returned now."

Mr Caulfield asked for the hearing to be adjourned for four weeks so documents relating to the case could be retrieved from Crown Prosecution Service archives.

Recorder John Norris granted Mr Saunders bail, on condition he lives at Castle View, Bishop Middleham, makes no new passport application and attends Spennymoor Police Station three times a week.