Gold bars 'swapped for painted lead bricks' at Ukrainian bank in Odessa

The heist came as conflict between the government and rebels continued

Gold bars held in a vault at a Ukrainian bank have been swapped for lead bricks covered in golden paint, it has emerged.

The Central Bank in the southern port city of Odessa was allegedly conned into buying the fake bullion by a member of staff, who used it to conceal the theft of the real bars.

The state’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has announced an investigation into the heist, which could involve up to 11kg of missing gold worth almost £270,000.

“The management of the central bank’s branch in Odessa asked us to investigate fraud by their employee,” Volodymyr Shablienko, head of the Odessa police’s press office, told Bloomberg News. “We are conducting a forensic audit now.”

A bank employee passed lead bars covered with golden paint to the storage unit, registering them as gold, Ukraine’s Vesti newspaper reported, adding that the suspect has fled to Crimea.

The con prompted a decision by Ukraine’s national bank not to buy precious metals over the counter because of issues with authenticity.

Criminal proceedings began on 18 December, months after the scam reportedly took place between August and October.

Odessa has seen outbursts of violence and rioting since the Ukrainian conflict started following the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.

At least 46 people died in a fire and clashes between pro-government protesters and separatists in May as pro-Russian rebels took control of swathes of eastern Ukraine.

The strategic port has remained under Ukrainian control through the conflict but it is believed to be a target for the separatists, who continue battling government forces despite a ceasefire signed by both sides in September.

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