Yukos top executive arrested in Russia on charges of financial crimes

A vice president tasked with saving Russia's stricken Yukos oil company from bankruptcy was arrested Thursday less than a week after his appointment was announced on charges of embezzlement and money laundering.

Vasily Aleksanian was being interrogated by prosecutors, a spokeswoman for the general prosecutor's office said. Charges officially were filed against him, his lawyer, Gevorg Davgyan, said later Thursday, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

Aleksanian was named executive vice president of Yukos last Friday. Yukos once Russia's biggest oil producer has been crippled by billions of dollars (euros) in politically tinged back-tax bills, and has been put under external supervision before bankruptcy hearings June 27.

Moscow's Simonovsky court ruled Thursday that prosecutors could launch criminal proceedings against Aleksanian. Russian law requires that prosecutors receive court permission to file charges against a former lawyer.

"I'm without words to describe it," Yukos spokeswoman Claire Davidson said. "He was working specifically to protect all shareholders (in Yukos)." She said the company would release a statement later Thursday.

A consortium of Western banks sought to have Yukos declared bankrupt after it defaulted on nearly half of a US$1 billion (Ђ820 million) syndicated loan arranged three years ago by Societe Generale SA with Deutsche Bank AG, Citigroup Inc. and HSBC PLC.

The bankruptcy hearings are likely to be the closing chapters on Yukos, built up by billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky to become Russia's leading oil company before his arrest and conviction and the company's dismantlement and nationalization.

State oil firm Rosneft already owns Yukos' former main production unit and is believed to be eyeing the company's remaining 600,000 barrels per day of production capacity and a major refinery. Its hand has been strengthened by an agreement to purchase the debt from the Western banks.

Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion in a Siberian prison camp. Observers say the criminal case against him, and the related back tax case against the company, were punishment for his political ambitions and a step to reassert state influence over Russia's strategically important oil sector.

A web of investigations and lawsuits have been launched against other employees of the fallen oil giant. This month, senior company lawyer Svetlana Bakhmina is due to be sentenced on embezzlement charges. Prosecutors have called for nine years imprisonment.

Most of the oil company's senior managers have fled Russia and are working from London.

Separately, a Moscow court on Thursday rejected Khodorkovsky's appeal against being sent to serve his time in a Siberian prison camp, six time zones from Moscow on the Chinese border. Khodorkovsky's lawyers had argued that he should be imprisoned in Moscow or the Moscow region where he is registered and resided before his arrest, reports AP.

O.Ch.