Russian investigators deny billionaire's release

Russian investigators deny billionaire's release

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MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian billionaire's company claimed the tycoon was freed from house arrest on Friday, an announcement that was welcomed by some top officials only to be rejected minutes later by the nation's top criminal investigation agency.

The confusion about Vladimir Yevtushenkov's fate reflected a high-stakes battle for some of the country's most prized oil assets that reportedly involves the upper echelons of Russian officialdom.

Russia's Investigative Committee said Friday that the 65-year old Yevtushenkov has remained under house arrest, dismissing the claim of his release issued by his Sistema holding company.

Yevtushenkov's arrest Tuesday on money laundering charges has sent shock waves through the country's business community, drawing comparisons to the arrest of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003.

It drew strong protests from some of the nation's top business figures, who warned that the measure was unfounded and could further worsen Russia's investment climate already hurt by Western economic sanctions over Ukraine.

Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and Russia's business ombudsman, Boris Titov, were among those who quickly hailed the claim of Yevtushenkov's release.

"A legal decision has shown respect for the public opinion," Titov said in live televised remarks. "We have been heard."

But less than 30 minutes after Yevtushenkov's release had been announced, Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the tycoon has remained under house arrest.

The case against Yevtushenkov focused on his company's purchase of Bashneft, which was the nation's fastest growing oil company in the second quarter this year. Most market watchers see Yevtushenkov's house arrest as part of efforts by state-controlled oil giant Rosneft to take control of Bashneft.

Rosneft is led by Igor Sechin, a longtime close associate of President Vladimir Putin. Sechin also was seen as the principal force behind the demise of Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company, whose assets have fallen to Rosneft.

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