Belarus accuses Uralkali's Kerimov of abuse of power

Reuters

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus said on Monday it had formally accused the top shareholder in Russia's Uralkali (MCX:URKA) of abuse of power on Monday, deepening a diplomatic and trade dispute between the ex-Soviet states after the collapse of a potash sales alliance.

The Investigative Committee, the country's top crime-fighting agency, said it had asked Interpol to search for Russian tycoon Suleiman Kerimov, a billionaire with close ties to President Vladimir Putin's administration.

There is little chance Russia would hand Kerimov over to Belarus, which has been holding Uralkali head Vladislav Baumgertner since his unexpected arrest at the airport in the capital, Minsk, a week ago.

Kerimov's investment vehicle Nafta Moskva and Uralkali declined to comment.

The dispute has put a powerful new strain on the close but sometimes tense relationship between Russia and Belarus, which relies on Moscow for energy supplies and financial help but is important to the Kremlin as a military and economic ally.

A foundation belonging to Kerimov owns 21.75 percent of Uralkali, the world's largest producer of the soil nutrient.

"The actions of S. Kerimov qualify as abuse of power and official authority ... The maximum penalty is imprisonment for up to 10 years and confiscation of property," the committee said in a statement.

Baumgertner was detained on the same charges on August 26 while visiting Belarus at the invitation of its prime minister. Russia subsequently announced a 25 percent reduction in oil supplies to Belarus and banned pork imports.

The Investigative Committee also said on Monday it had materials relating to Kerimov and Baumgertner that showed they may have acted against Russian interests as well.

Russia is one the few diplomatic backers of its former Soviet neighbour after 19 years of authoritarian rule by President Alexander Lukashenko.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said he had too little information to comment in detail on the development.

"Of course, information is needed on what exactly Kerimov is accused of, but regardless of the situation, the Russian government constantly works to protect the interests of Russian citizens," he said in a radio interview.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Ralph Boulton)

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