PARIS (AP) -- French special police forces backed by an airplane and armored vehicles seized a Kazakh dissident businessman accused of embezzling billions of dollars from his country's BTA Bank, a French prosecutor said Thursday.
Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive former Kazakh energy minister and head of the pre-nationalized BTA Bank, was transferred to a temporary holding facility after appearing before judicial authorities in southeast France. His arrest a day earlier in the muscular police operation came after the deportation of his wife and young daughter from Italy to Kazakhstan caused a political crisis in Rome last month.
Ablyazov, 50, is wanted under an Interpol red notice — the equivalent of an international arrest warrant — on allegations of "fraud in a large scale infliction of damage on property by deceit or breach of trust, money laundering, abuse of authority, document forgery," the international police body's website says.
He had dropped out of sight just before he was sentenced in Britain in February last year for contempt of court during a financial fraud trial. After leaving his government post, Ablyazov emerged as a prominent opponent of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the energy-rich Central Asian nation since before the Soviet collapse.
Solange Legras, chief state prosecutor for international cases at an appeals court in the southeastern town of Aix-en-Provence, held a hearing with Ablyazov on Thursday. She told The Associated Press that special police forces, backed by an airplane and armored vehicles, swept into a rental home in the town of Mouans Sartoux on Wednesday to detain him.
The police used "powerful means" because Ablyazov was known to have a "private militia" at his disposal, said Legras. No shots were fired or any physical damage caused in the operation. She said Ablyazov has been sought through Interpol since 2009, and was likely to remain in French custody for weeks — at the very least.
Picked up "in shorts and a T-shirt, "Ablyazov had in his possession a diplomatic passport from Central African Republic that was "probably false," Legras said. Police were only authorized to detain him, not search the site.
During their hearing, which lasted no more than a half-hour and took place with three lawyers present, Ablyazov insisted he had political refugee status in Britain and said he was the victim of a smear campaign, Legras said. She said her role was to explain the possible extradition process, not delve into the case. Afterward, Ablyazov was taken to a detention center in the neighboring town of Luynes.
Shortly after setting up a pro-reform party in 2001, Ablyazov was sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of public office. He was pardoned by Nazarbayev and released two years later, vowing to stay out of politics — a promise he broke by funneling money to the opposition.
Kazakh prosecutors have described Ablyazov as the head of an extremist, criminal conspiracy bent on "seizing power by inciting civil strife and hatred." The prosecutor in Astana, the Kazakh capital, said Interpol had informed the government of the arrest, which was carried out at the request of Ukraine.
Ablyazov is wanted by Kazakhstan authorities on charges of siphoning off at least $5 billion from Kazakhstan's BTA Bank. In Russia, he's being sought in connection with embezzlement charges involving BTA and a Russian company. Ukraine is seeking Ablyazov on charges linked to alleged embezzlement of funds from a local BTA branch.
A British court last year upheld a 22-month prison sentence imposed on Ablyazov for contempt of court for breaching an asset-freezing order. And last month Italy's shaky coalition government came under fire but survived a no-confidence vote over its handling of the deportation of his wife and 6-year-old daughter from their Rome home to Kazakhstan in May — amid pressure from Kazakh diplomats.
In a statement on their father's website, Ablyazov's son and older daughter said they feared what would happen if their father were deported to Kazakhstan.
"We beg the French authorities not to grant Kazakhstan our father. He is a man of honor who has been fighting all his life and sacrificed so much for freedom and democracy in Kazakhstan," wrote Madina and Madiyar Ablyazov. "We are afraid for his life."
Efforts to contact them and his lawyers directly were not immediately successful.
Legras, the prosecutor, said French judicial authorities only know of extradition requests from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. For now, Legras said she was focusing on the extradition request from Ukraine because France has no bilateral extradition accord with Kazakhstan.
Under the extradition process, the requesting country has 40 days to send its legal dossier to French authorities. Once that is received, French prosecutors will have five days to present Ablyazov to investigating magistrates. As a result, Legras said she expected that Ablyazov would remain in French custody at least through the end of August.
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.
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