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Russian prosecutors request arrest warrant for Boris Berezovsky on new charges

Russian prosecutors said Monday they have asked a Moscow court to issue an arrest warrant for businessman Boris Berezovsky in connection with a new criminal case against the outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin.

The previously unknown case, which dates back to the 1990s, comes as the Kremlin steps up its efforts to discredit Berezovsky, who has been granted political asylum by Britain.

The Russian government - under pressure to extradite the main suspect in the poisoning death in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a Berezovsky associate - accuses Britain of double standards in refusing to hand over the exiled tycoon for trial in Russia.

The Prosecutor General's Office asked for Berezovsky's arrest on charges he stole US$13 million (EUR 9.52 million) from the SBS-Agro banking giant. It also asked the court to seize Berezovsky's property in France. No details were provided.

According to Berezovsky's lawyer Semyon Aria, he is accused of using middlemen to take out a loan from the bank in 1997, which was used to acquire a villa in southern France and never repaid. Berezovsky rented the villa, which was subsequently sold to a British company, Aria said.

"One should note that Berezovsky never owned that property," Aria said. "It was not he who took the money, and he never signed any papers. He is accused of being the one who secretly inspired this."

A hearing on the prosecutors' request has been set for Aug. 7, Moscow City Court spokeswoman Anna Usacheva said.

Berezovsky is currently being tried in absentia for the alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars from state flag carrier Aeroflot in the 1990s.

He also is wanted in Brazil on money-laundering charges in a case involving a Brazilian soccer team. Berezovsky called the warrant, issued earlier this month, "an extension of the Kremlin's politicized campaign against me."

The one-time Kremlin insider, who is valued at US$1.1 billion (EUR 810 million) by Forbes magazine, has accused the Kremlin of bringing him to trial in an attempt to divert attention from the radiation poisoning of Litvinenko. Before he died in November, Litvinenko blamed Putin for his poisoning, as has Berezovsky.

Kremlin allies, meanwhile, have suggested Berezovsky could have had the former KGB officer killed in order to blacken Putin's reputation.

Berezovsky fled to Britain in 2000 to avoid prosecution in the Aeroflot case. He also faces possible prosecution in Russia over his alleged calls for the government to be overthrown.

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