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Moscow court upholds arrest warrant for billionaire

A Moscow court on Wednesday upheld a warrant for arrest of Russian billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev, who has accused the government of forcing him to step down as the head of his oil company.

The case has echoes of the Kremlin's campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Yukos oil company, now serving an eight-year prison sentence after being convicted of tax evasion and fraud.

Gutseriyev, who has been charged with tax evasion and illegal business activity, did not attend Wednesday's hearing. His whereabouts are unknown but he is thought to have fled the country. An international warrant for his arrest was issued Aug. 24.

The fate of his company, Russneft, the seventh-largest oil company in Russia, was uncertain.

Gutseriyev had agreed to sell the company to Oleg Deripaska, a metals tycoon with closer ties to the Kremlin, but the deal was thrown into doubt when a court froze Russneft's shares on July 31 in connection with the tax evasion charges.

The Moscow City Court did not rule Wednesday on an appeal against the share freeze, which remains in effect. Any transactions are prohibited, the judges said.

The holdup of the sale to Deripaska has been seen as an indication of disagreement within the Kremlin over who should take over the oil company.

Deripaska's holding company, Basic Element, applied to the federal antitrust agency last week for approval to purchase Russneft. The application is still pending.

Gutseriyev's lawyer, Alla Yaminskaya, said that all accusations against her client are "groundless and absurd" and all court decisions being made in connection with his case are "illegal and will be appealed."

She said she does not know Gutseriyev's whereabouts and is not in touch with him, but that "as far as I know he is undergoing medical treatment."

Prosecutor Viktor Gvozdev said he has information from Belarusian authorities that Gutseriyev had flown from the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to the Turkish resort city of Antalya on July 30. "We have no doubt that it was Gutseriyev," he said.

The Russneft case has drawn parallels to the legal onslaught against Yukos, which began in 2003 and signaled the Kremlin's intention to tighten its control over the energy sector.

Yukos was bankrupted over back-tax claims totaling US$33 billion and its assets have been taken over by state-run oil company Rosneft.

Gutseriyev stepped down as chief executive of Russneft in July following what he said was "unprecedented bullying" from the government.

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