Abramovich and Berezovsky begin £2bn legal battle over disputed assets

A £2bn legal tussle between Britain's two most high-profile Russian oligarchs which began with a skirmish in a Hermes boutique reached the High Court yesterday with claims that the entire case revolved around an unrecorded oral agreement as they haggled over the sale of former Soviet assets.

Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled tycoon who has been the target of repeated attempts by the Kremlin to have him extradited to Moscow to face fraud charges, is suing the Chelsea FC owner and multibillionaire Roman Abramovich over allegations that he was forced to sell shares in a string of huge Russian state companies. At a preliminary hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, lawyers for Mr Abram-ovich, 41, who has an estimated fortune of nearly £11bn, said they were considering an attempt to have Mr Berezovsky's case rejected out of hand.

The proceedings, which if they succeed could lead to one of the largest pay-outs in British legal history, began formally last year after Mr Berezovsky, 62, succeeded in delivering a writ to his adversary – and former protégé – by forcing his way past Mr Abramovich's bodyguards when he was shopping in the Hermes store in London's affluent Sloane Street. Mr Berezovsky claimed he had spent six months trying serve the legal papers.

Mr Berezovsky, who employed the murdered Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko and successfully applied for political asylum in Britain after claiming the fraud charges against him were politically motivated, is alleging that he was intimidated by Mr Abramovich into selling his shares in the oil company Sibneft; Rusal, the largest aluminium maker in Russia; and the television channel ORT.

The exiled tycoon, who has an estimated £500m fortune, wants to be repaid the £2bn which he says he lost by selling the shares below their value.

Andrew Popplewell QC, for Mr Abramovich, told the court that Mr Berezovsky's claims were "hopeless". He said: "These are very large claims running into billions of dollars. But the arguability of the claims depends wholly on oral conversations which are not documented."

The case continues.

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