FBI ups ante in hunt for BCCI millionaire

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The Independent Online

The FBI has issued an international alert for a Saudi millionaire thought to be living incognito in the Mediterranean, who is accused of being a key figure in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International fraud.

Gaith Rashad Pharaon, 65, was once a familiar figure in London business circles. But he is now wanted in Washington for a series of federal and international crimes ranging from fraud to financing terrorism.

An FBI despatch to police forces around the world describes Mr Pharaon as being involved in one of the biggest commercial frauds in history. The collapse of BCCI took almost $13bn (£6.9bn) in depositors' money and left 250,000 international creditors unpaid.

Mr Pharaon has evaded the US authorities for almost 15 years. A large reward is offered for information leading to his arrest.

The FBI says Mr Pharaon owns the yacht Le Pharone with a picture of the Sphinx painted on the stern. The yacht was spotted at the beginning of the summer docked off the tiny Italian island of Pantelleria near Sicily. The 90-ton, 60-metre vessel, which sails under the Panamanian flag, was intercepted by FBI agents deployed from Rome in a bid to arrest its owner.

But Mr Pharaon was not located, and the yacht was released. Italian police said the yacht's British captain reported he was heading to Algeria.

The FBI describes Mr Pharaon as extremely wealthy with "numerous contacts within governments around the world". The alert says he is "of stocky build with thinning black hair, graying at the temples". He speaks Arabic, French, English and Greek, and smokes cigars. "He normally wears a small pointed beard, but has been seen with a moustache," the FBI adds.

Mr Pharaon is alleged to have acted as a frontman for BCCI to acquire illegal stakes in American banks. The National Bank of Georgia was allegedly Mr Pharaon's first American target in 1978. According to BCCI's own records, the Luxembourg-based BCCI wound up with a controlling stake.