A Swiss chalet, a fire, and a President who crossed Putin

Rumours fill top resort that Ukraine leader was targeted by Alpine arsonist

Brian Brady,Matthew Bell,Tony Paterson
Sunday 11 January 2009 01:00

An intriguing mystery was unfolding at a luxury Alpine resort this weekend after speculation started to take wing that a chalet in the upmarket Swiss skiing town of Gstaad was destroyed by a fire that was aimed at its occupant – an Eastern European leader who is at loggerheads with Vladimir Putin's regime in Moscow.

As police investigated the cause of a blaze that destroyed a holiday home in the village of Kalberhöni, rumours persisted that among eight people who fled the inferno was Viktor Yushchenko, President of Ukraine and for the past month or so embroiled in a bitter row with Moscow over the price it pays for Russian gas. One local familiar with the chalet owned by Janos Lux said everybody in the village knew the fire had happened, but nobody knew the circumstances around it, as there had been a "diplomatic silence". "Theirs is a different world to ours," she said of Mr Lux and his paying guests.

It was shortly after midnight on 29 December when the fire brigade in the mountainous area of Saanen was called to a fierce blaze at an isolated holiday chalet close to Kalberhöni. Despite what the firefighters later referred to as "a quick intervention" by a 55-man team, they had no chance. The two-storey building was ablaze when they arrived and by the time the flames abated, close to dawn, it was a gaping wreck smouldering in the snow.

The authorities did, however, console themselves with the discovery that the eight people who had been staying in the chalet had somehow managed to escape the inferno safely. One witness said: "Diplomatic vehicles arrived, and they disappeared into the night." Both the police and the fire service confirmed in their press statements that no one was injured; what they refused to reveal was exactly who these eight people were.

In Kalberhöni and the tiny villages clustered on the slopes above Saanen, which has its own airstrip, the rumours about the lucky paying guests at Janos Lux's chalet abound. The fire service refers inquiries about the eight survivors of the blaze directly to the canton of Bern police in Saanen; the police in turn explain that they are unable to reveal identities "to protect personalities" – and suggest that callers contact the Ukrainian embassy in Bern. A spokesman at the embassy dismissed suggestions that Mr Yushchenko might have been the target of an arson attack. "The President has not been in Switzerland for at least six months," he told The Independent on Sunday.

Official records from the President's office in the Ukrainian capital Kiev reveal that Mr Yushchenko visited Switzerland at least twice last year. He has regularly visited the country for medical examinations at Geneva University Hospital since 2005, following the discovery that he had been poisoned by dioxins during Ukraine's Orange Revolution the previous year. The Russian state has been accused of involvement in the poisoning.

Presidential office records show that Mr Yushchenko fulfilled a series of official duties in Ukraine in late December, while the country was locked in its dispute with the Russians over gas supplies. But there was a two-day gap between his appearance at a congress on Saturday 27 December and a meeting with the chairman of the national bank at lunchtime on Monday 29 December – 12 hours after the fire.

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