Russians Seize, Charge
YUKOS Oil Magnate

By Larisa Sayenko

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's wealthiest man, oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was snatched from his jet in Siberia on Saturday, charged with fraud and tax evasion, and clamped in prison.
Khodorkovsky, chief executive of YUKOS, had been engaged in months of confrontation with the Kremlin, backing President Vladimir Putin's rivals ahead of a parliamentary election in December and a presidential contest next March.
Prosecutors called the case against Khodorkovsky "unprecedented." The action seemed calculated to demonstrate who was boss to the fabulously wealthy "oligarchs" who control post-Soviet Russia's natural resources and industry.
It may also be a prelude to confiscating assets acquired in chaotic privatization's in the 1990s, investment analysts said.
"They want to cut him down to size," one international official in Moscow told Reuters.
A spokeswoman for the General Prosecutor said Khodorkovsky was grabbed on the tarmac at Novosibirsk after failing to appear for questioning in Moscow on Friday. State security agents flew him back to the capital where he was charged on seven counts, some relating to purchases of former state assets a decade ago.
"It was decided to oblige him to appear," she said.
A Moscow court later ruled that Khodorkovsky should be held in jail. He was then taken to the Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailors Rest) prison in northeastern Moscow.
"Everything I saw underscores the fact that this was all political. Khodorkovsky refused to admit any guilt," the oil magnate's lawyer, Anton Drel, told reporters.
"He asked me to make it clear that he has no regrets over what he has done, no regrets over not leaving the country."
A YUKOS statement denounced the charges as "absurd" and said the company "views as humiliating the brute violence used by Russia's law enforcement system." YUKOS, it said, "will fully uphold its obligations to investors and creditors."
The prosecutor said $1 billion and more of "damage" was done by Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev -- a key YUKOS shareholder held in the same Moscow jail since July.
Prosecutors made clear the charges were brought against Khodorkovsky, 40, both as an individual and as head of YUKOS.
Russia's biggest oil firm, YUKOS recently engineered a merger with smaller Sibneft. U.S. oil major Exxon Mobil is said to be interested in taking a stake.
Neither Exxon nor another possible buyer, Chevron Texaco, commented on the new turmoil, which followed searches of firms and institutions associated with the oil major.
Analysts said the arrest could open the way to Khodorkovsky and his associates being stripped of their stakes in YUKOS.
"This is clearly an endgame of some sort," said one foreign banker. "I think we have a very powerful change in the making."
Putin, a former KGB agent hailed by supporters for ending post-Soviet tumult, is expected to run and easily win a second term next year. Television showed him chairing a weekly meeting of top law and order officials on Saturday without comment.
Putin has preserved a lofty detachment in public from the disputes with YUKOS and other business empires. But he has made clear he does not wish to be in thrall to big business in the way his predecessor Boris Yeltsin was to the "oligarchs."
Khodorkovsky's political ambitions have won him no more favor with the Kremlin than wealthy former Yeltsin allies like Boris Berezovsky or Vladimir Gusinsky, now in uneasy exile.
"He is being pressed to give it up or sell out. People high up in administration do not want...their most powerful opponent running the most powerful company in Russia," said an international official in Moscow.
YUKOS spokesman Alexander Shadrin said Khodorkovsky's aircraft was accosted during a refueling stop by officers identifying themselves as members of the FSB intelligence service, the domestic successor to the Soviet KGB.
He was ordered out of the aircraft and taken away.
Electricity utility boss Anatoly Chubais, former architect of privatization, said moves against business chiefs "have considerably worsened the atmosphere in Russian society.
"We believe that only a clear and unambiguous position by Russian President Putin can stop these extremely dangerous developments," he said after meeting fellow business leaders.
Two liberal parties -- Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing Forces -- backed by Khodorkovsky said in a joint statement the arrest would "change the political situation and place in doubt the immutable nature of Russia's constitution."



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