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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Swiss Raid Sibneft Firm in Probe

Swiss authorities have raided the headquarters of Sibneft trader Runicom as part of a growing probe into the possible misuse of billions of dollars in IMF funds sent to Russia in 1998, the Swiss prosecutor’s office said Thursday.

Sibneft, which often speaks for its owners, fiercely denied that Runicom had been involved in any illegal activities.

Swiss prosecutors stormed Runicom’s Montreux offices on Aug. 11, the day after Russian tax police searched Sibneft’s Moscow offices and seized reams of papers.

"If you understand that no charges have yet been lodged, then we can say it [the raid] was related to the investigation [of the embezzlement of International Monetary Fund loans]," Bernard Bertossa, prosecutor general in Geneva, said in a telephone interview from Geneva.

He refused to say whether the raid on Runicom’s office and that on Sibneft’s headquarters in Moscow made up a coordinated effort.

The Swiss are investigating whether some of the $4.5 billion in IMF funds, earmarked to prop up the faltering ruble just before the 1998 financial crisis, was diverted to offshore banks. Prosecutors, who are working with the Russian authorities, have for weeks been examining the accounts of Aeroflot.

Laurent Kaspar Ansermet, the Swiss magistrate leading the probe, filed a formal request for documentation on details of money transfers from the IMF to Russia last week during a trip to the United States.

Kaspar-Ansermet said he was able to obtain only a portion of the documents and that he was waiting for more, Reuters reported.

Sibneft said Thursday that Runicom could not have been involved in any dealings with IMF money because the company had a turnover of a meager $1.2 million in 1998, while the investigation concerns the possible misuse of a hefty $1.4 billion.

Runicom, which at one time acted as Sibneft’s major export trading arm, has seen its status in the oil company shrink after the bulk of Sibneft’s offshore business was handed to a Gibraltar-registered Runicom, according to local media reports.

The ownership structure of both Runicoms and the three other front companies that control Sibneft is unclear, but they are widely believed to be held by tycoons Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky.

The Geneva daily Le Temps first broke the story about the raid in Wednesday editions.

Meanwhile, the Russian press speculated Thursday that the Runicom raid could also be linked to a legal battle which the company is embroiled in with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The EBRD is trying to recover a debt of about $60 million that it obtained from SBS-Agro bank as a collateral on a loan.

SBS-Agro handed over the loan with a principle $14 million to the EBRD as a collateral for outstanding debt in 1998, but the EBRD later ran into difficulty trying to collect it. Runicom said it had already repaid the debt.

The EBRD has sued and lost three cases in Russian courts and is now considering an appeal to the Supreme Arbitration Court.

"The bank has not closed the case at all," an EBRD official said Thursday.

She dismissed allegations that the Runicom raid was connected to the bank’s court battle.