- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

MOSCOW — Black-uniformed special forces swept onto the airplane of Russia’s wealthiest man yesterday and forced him back to Moscow, where he was ordered jailed on criminal charges — a dramatic escalation of the politically charged probe into Russia’s largest oil company.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of the oil giant Yukos, was charged with fraud, forgery and other crimes hours after the special forces troops, weapons drawn, surrounded his private plane at a Siberian airport.

The dramatic arrest alarmed the country’s business and political elite, with many analysts saying the actions are a Kremlin-directed campaign to keep Mr. Khodorkovsky out of politics.

Mr. Khodorkovsky, who has openly funded opposition parties, is the latest of Russia’s super-rich oligarchs to be pursued by President Vladimir Putin’s government. Tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky have gone into self-imposed exile to avoid criminal prosecution.

The Prosecutor General’s office also charged Mr. Khodorkovsky with embezzlement and personal and corporate tax evasion, the news agency Interfax reported.

The charges were filed in Moscow, where Mr. Khodorkovsky was brought after he was detained during a business trip in Novosibirsk, the main city in Siberia.

“The charges of the prosecutor are groundless. The detention of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is aimed at fanning a big scandal which would cover up the lack of evidence in the so-called Yukos case,” Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin said.

He said Mr. Khodorkovsky’s plane was surrounded by trucks after it landed in Novosibirsk and black-uniformed forces identifying themselves as FSB — Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB — boarded the plane shouting “put down your weapons or we’ll shoot.”

Mr. Khodorkovsky, 40, whose wealth was estimated by Forbes magazine at $8 billion, is one of the most prominent of Russia’s so-called “oligarchs” — men who made huge, quick fortunes after the collapse of the Soviet Union by acquiring state property at low prices in deals whose ethics came under question.

Under Mr. Putin, authorities stripped Mr. Gusinsky of his media empire and charged him with fraud, and have charged Mr. Berezovsky with fraud in connection with an automobile company. Both now live overseas, where courts have rejected Russian extradition requests.

Both Mr. Gusinsky and Mr. Berezovsky say the actions against them are a political vendetta in retaliation for criticism of Mr. Putin. The Kremlin says that the prosecutor’s office is an independent agency outside presidential control.

Mr. Khodorkovsky has given money to the opposition Yabloko and Union of Right Forces parties and is believed to have personal political ambitions.

As head of the largest company dealing in Russia’s largest export commodity, Mr. Khodorkovsky can wield substantial influence, and his potency was likely to increase with Yukos’ recently finalized merger with Sibneft to create the world’s fourth-largest oil exporting company.

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