Abramovich faces inquiry over property in France

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The Independent Online

Roman Abramovich, the Russian tycoon who owns Chelsea football club, has been drawn into a French investigation into the purchase, by his former business partner, of a spectacular seafront property on the Côte d'Azur.

Roman Abramovich, the Russian tycoon who owns Chelsea football club, has been drawn into a French investigation into the purchase, by his former business partner, of a spectacular seafront property on the Côte d'Azur.

French investigators reportedly want to question Mr Abramovich as part of an investigation into the circumstances in which another British-based Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky bought the estate of La Garoupe in 1997.

Mr Berezovsky's chateau in the walled estate, on the exclusive Cap d'Antibes, was searched last month on the orders of a French examining magistrate acting at the prompting of the French finance ministry's anti money-laundering unit. Mr Berezovsky was in London at the time, and said that his 81-year-old mother, who was alone with an employee, had been indisposed by the arrival of masked and armed men who swooped into the property by helicopter and seized documents.

According to yesterday's Nice-Matin newspaper, documents seized in that raid show the involvement of a company controlled by Mr Abramovich in the purchase of La Garoupe for €22m (£15m).

The judge leading the investigation, Béatrice Del Volgo, has been looking into whether part of the money used by Mr Berezovsky to buy La Garoupe was guaranteed by Sibneft, the oil company controlled by Mr Abramovich.

The two billionaires, who both live in Britain, joined the club of the Russian oligarchs when they benefited from the selling of state assets following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, the pair are now estranged. Mr Berezovsky successfully applied for political asylum in Britain after claiming he was being hounded by President Vladimir Putin for his political activities; Mr Abramovich remains close to the Kremlin and is governor of the Arctic region of Chukotka.

Nice-Matin said Ms Del Volgo wanted to question Mr Abramovich about whether Sibneft did help Mr Berezovsky buy the estate. The French judge could not be reached last night. But a spokesman for Mr Abramovich denied that Sibneft had provided any financial guarantees for the purchase of the property.

The spokesman told The Independent: "Sibneft has not received notice that the company is the subject of any investigation. Furthermore, Sibneft has never provided any financial guarantees for the purchase of the property in question. The company and Mr Abramovich had no involvement in this transaction."

The spokesman added: "Neither Sibneft nor Mr Abramovich currently has any relationship with the central subject of this investigation," Mr Berezovsky.

Nice-Matin said Ms Del Volgo also wants to question Mr Abramovich about his own purchase of the Château de la Croé, which is also located in the same exclusive district near Antibes. Mr Abramovich, who is Britain's richest man, bought the chateau, where the Duke of Windsor set up home after abdicating, for around £15m last year. The Abramovich spokesman said that "any check into Mr Abramovich's property would only confirm that his assets were purchased legally and above board".

Mr Berezovsky said last night he was "100 per cent sure that the documents they took are not able to prove anything at all. I have not been there for four years." He added: "I know nothing about any involvement by Mr Abramovich in this property."

According to Mr Berezovsky, the investigation is politically motivated and instigated at the request of his arch-enemy, Mr Putin.

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