The closest that Mouans Sartoux normally comes to a muscular police presence are patrols to check on holidaying villagers’ homes. At least, that was the case until French special forces – backed by armoured vehicles and a helicopter – arrived looking for the fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Fortunately for residents of this sedate village north of Cannes, the “private militia” surrounding the Kazakh billionaire – and successful UK asylum applicant – did not put up a fight as Mr Ablyazov was arrested on Wednesday in his rented villa after a Europe-wide manhunt that could have been taken from the pages of a thriller.
The 50-year-old banker appeared before a judge in Aix-en-Provence yesterday at the start of what are likely to be lengthy extradition proceedings. The list of countries that would like to get their hands on Mukhtar Ablyazov arguably make him one of the world’s most wanted men. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia might eventually be able to try him in connection with alleged embezzlement on “an epic scale”, in the words of the British courts.
The former banker was sued for $6bn (£3.9bn) in London’s High Court and his wife and child were forcibly taken from Rome to Kazakhstan in May, sparking a political crisis.
The High Court found that Mr Ablyazov misappropriated at least £2.6bn from the Kazakh bank BTA while he was chairman. The bank played a crucial role in tracking down the man who fled Britain in February last year after being sentenced to 22 months’ imprisonment for contempt of court. In a statement BTA said: “Since Mr Ablyazov fled the UK in violation of court orders, the BTA Bank has sought to locate him and recently traced him to southern France. The bank provided information about his whereabouts to French authorities who acted promptly to arrest him.”
The absence of an extradition treaty between Kazakhstan and France means that Mr Ablyazov was arrested on a Ukrainian warrant linked to the BTA embezzlement. The Independent understands that police were led to Mouans Sartoux by private detectives, who followed a London-based Ukrainian woman (a close friend of Mr Ablyazov) to one of at least three homes he had rented on the Cote d’Azur. Sources familiar with the case said the woman arrived at the villa shortly after 3am 10 days ago after catching a late-night flight from London. Mr Ablyazov was seen in his underwear closing the curtains shortly afterwards. The woman was then seen visiting a different villa five days before Mr Ablyazov’s arrest, prompting the bank to tip off the French authorities.
The banker, whose country’s elite has grown wealthy on the proceeds of vast oil and gas reserves, insists he is the target of a political conspiracy after he left his post as Energy minister and became a prominent opponent of his country’s autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Mr Ablyazov funded a pro-reform party in 2001, earning himself a six-year prison term for abuse of public office. After he was pardoned by Mr Nazarbayev in 2003, he presided over rapid growth at BTA, allegedly plundering its assets until he fled to London 2009 and successfully applied for asylum.
Kazakh prosecutors have described him as the head of an extremist, criminal conspiracy bent on “seizing power by inciting civil strife and hatred”.