By Simon Morgan
German prosecutors say they have identified fewer than 10 suspects in the massive pollution-cheating scandal that has engulfed Volkswagen, as the auto giant announced a drop in worldwide sales.
"More than two, but a lot fewer than 10 people" were suspected of masterminding the scam where sophisticated software skews pollution emissions tests in diesel engines, Klaus Ziehe, spokesman for the prosecutors, told AFP on Friday (local time).
After VW admitted last month to fitting 11 million vehicles worldwide with the rogue devices, plunging the world's biggest automaker by sales into an unprecedented crisis, the prosecutors in the northern city of Brunswick near VW's headquarters launched a criminal investigation into suspected fraud.
Earlier this week, news weekly Der Spiegel reported that "at least 30 people" were involved in the deception - a number that VW dismissed as "completely without basis".
The group's new chief executive, Matthias Mueller, said last week that four employees, including three executives in charge of engine development at different stages, had been suspended.
German press reports named two of them as Ulrich Hackenberg, development chief at VW's Audi subsidiary, and Wolfgang Hatz, his counterpart at luxury sports car brand Porsche. Volkswagen has not confirmed that information.
In addition to the German criminal probe, VW is conducting its own internal investigation and has hired a US law firm to help.
At the same time, Volkswagen said deliveries to customers were down for both September and the first nine months of this year.
VW said it sold 885,300 vehicles worldwide in September and 7.431 million in the first nine months. Both figures represented a decline of 1.5 percent compared with the corresponding period a year earlier.
From a regional breakdown of the sales figures, it was not immediately apparent whether the scandal, which broke on September 18, has had any direct effect on business just yet.
European sales in fact advanced by 3.8 percent in September, and sales in Germany were up 1.5 percent, VW said.
North American sales were up six percent in September, despite the fact it was US regulatory authorities who set the ball rolling, accusing VW of fitting its diesel engines with the cheating software.
By contrast, sales in Brazil, Russia and China - whose slowing economies are causing headaches not just for VW, but for other carmakers as well - fell by 43.7 percent, 26 percent and 0.8 percent, respectively.
As it seeks to contain the crisis, VW announced Friday it had named a top executive from rival carmaker Daimler as its new board member in charge of integrity and legal affairs from January 1.
VW said its supervisory board chief Hans Dieter Poetsch, had asked his counterpart at Daimler, Manfred Bischoff, to release Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt from her contract at Daimler early.