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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Troops Raid MOST-Bank Building

Dozens of armed special police officers clad in combat fatigues and flak jackets, their faces hidden by balaclava masks, sealed off the central Moscow highrise office building which houses MOST-Bank late Friday afternoon and arrested several men.

Moscow city officials, a MOST-Bank spokesman and the militia stationed outside the building at 36 Novy Arbat said Friday night they did not know what branch of government forces had conducted the operation which was continuing as of late Friday night.

The raid, made extraordinary by the fact that nobody explained why it was happening or who did the arresting, stopped rush hour traffic on Novy Arbat and attracted swarms of journalists and bystanders who witnessed the detentions.

MOST-Bank head Vladimir Gusinsky told Interfax late Friday that up to 10 of his bodyguards and chauffeurs were taken into custody by the special officers and brought to a local police station.

Friday night, NTV news aired an interview with Gusinsky in which he said that seven cars followed him from his dacha Friday morning. Gusinsky then called the Moscow unit of FSK, the Federal Counterintelligence Service.

Also on Friday, the deputy head of FSK and director of the Moscow unit, Major General Yevgeny Savostyanov, was fired by President Boris Yeltsin.

At noon, Gusinsky said on NTV, he heard that police confronted several men in the building's parking lot and gun shots were fired. At 5 P.M., the special officers sealed off the building and arrested the men.

In response to Friday's events, Interfax quoted Gusinsky as calling on the Interior Minister and the chief prosecutors for Russia and Moscow to "take urgent measures to put an end to violations of law and human rights."Gusinsky told Interfax that the armed men illegally searched MOST-Bank cars, damaged them and forced bodyguards to lie "on the cold ground for two hours." Gusinsky said special officers would not negotiate with bank officials, threatened to use weapons and refused to prove that they were law enforcement officers.

Sergei Kolesnikov, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the Moscow city police headquarters had claimed responsibility for the action, but would release no details to the ministry. When a representative from the ministry approached the main entrance of the building Friday afternoon to find out what was happening, he was told to turn back or be fired upon, Kolesnikov said.

However, Sergei Dontsov, the head of the mayor's legal and law enforcement department, denied that the city police were involved. Nor was the action directed against the mayor's offices located in the building, he said .

"We thought is was some kind of bandits, so we called around to various law enforcement organs, and they all assured us it was not them -- not the Interior Ministry, not the GuVD (Moscow police), not the tax police," said Dontsov.

The head of security for the nearby White House told the Interior Ministry that he had deployed his police officers around the edge of the MOST-Bank building to protect passers-by from the special forces, Kolesnikov said.

Despite the mystery surrounding the operation, the arrests were hardly discreet. Shortly after 7 P.M., as dozens of journalists and photographers looked on from a distance of some 30 meters, masked soldiers carrying automatic weapons made at least two arrested men put their hands behind their heads, stand to be photographed by another soldier and then get in an unmarked jeep.

MOST-Bank officials called a press conference for 7 P.M. on the 21st floor of the building, but militia officers restricted journalists' access to the event. Alexander Volodin, a bank worker, said none of the armed men had set foot in the bank's offices, where operations came to a standstill because of the police action.

A statement issued Friday by the Russian Association of Banks condemned the operation and appealed to President Boris Yeltsin -- who was watching the Davis Cup tennis tournament at the time -- to find out the reason for the raid. MOST-Bank is one of the most influential of Russia's emerging commercial banks.

Although rumors abounded Friday night outside the building that the operation was directed against the bank and involved tax police, bank officials said they knew nothing of this.

"We do not know who the gunmen are. They do not answer our questions and our attempts to contact them failed," said Svetlana Mironyuk, the deputy director of MOST-Bank, which has its headquarters in the building. "They knocked down several MOST-Bank drivers and beat them with rifles."

--Anne Barnard and Alexei Zilov contributed to this report.