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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prokhorov Held in French Prostitution Inquiry

VedomostiProkhorov seen in an undated photo. He was detained by French police Tuesday in Courchevel, a popular ski resort.
French authorities have detained Norilsk Nickel's billionaire CEO, Mikhail Prokhorov, for questioning as part of a crackdown on a suspected prostitution ring at an upmarket ski resort.

Prokhorov was taken into custody Tuesday at the Alpine ski resort of Courchevel, a favored playground of Russia's super-rich, prosecutor Xavier Richaud said Thursday.

Prokhorov, 41, is ranked No. 89 on Forbes magazine's 2006 list of the world's richest people. He is worth $6.4 billion, according to Forbes, making him one of the wealthiest men in Russia thanks to a 54.8 percent stake in Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel producer, and a 51 percent stake in Polyus Gold, Russia's biggest gold miner, that he jointly owns with business partner Vladimir Potanin.

Prokhorov was being held at police headquarters in Lyon while authorities checked whether he had been associating with underage girls, Richaud said.

A decision on whether to charge must be made by Saturday, he said.

The arrests occurred in several hotels at Courchevel, which has its own airstrip that can accommodate private jets. Russian tycoons stream to the resort over the new year and Orthodox Christmas holidays. Even among Russia's big-spending business elite, Prokhorov has a reputation for organizing lavish parties.

Prokhorov was among 27 people taken in for questioning, including 10 young Russian women who were released the same day, Richaud said.

Police detained two Prokhorov aides and several employees of the Austrian company that arranged his stay at the resort, he said.

Ten people remained in custody as of late Thursday afternoon, but the situation was changing "by the minute," Richaud said.

The Russian Embassy in Paris confirmed the detention of several Russian citizens in Courchevel.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov declined to comment on media reports that a Duma deputy was among those in custody.

Investigators on Tuesday also seized 50,000 euros ($65,000) in two four-star hotels in Courchevel, sources close to the inquiry said. They spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak to media.

Norilsk Nickel spokesman Sergei Chernitsyn called the detention "an extreme misunderstanding" and said Prokhorov was still expected back at work from his vacation Monday. "Company managers are law-abiding people," he said. "It is absurd to assume that they can face such charges."

The detention should not worry investors, said Sergei Donskoi, a metals analyst at Troika Dialog. "It's premature to make any conclusions about possible consequences," he said.

Norilsk Nickel shares ignored the development, rising 2.84 percent Thursday to close at $145 on the RTS stock exchange.

Prokhorov and Potanin are frequent guests at Courchevel. Potanin usually celebrates his birthday there on Jan. 3, while Prokhorov tends to throw "loud parties with crowds of young girls," Vedomosti reported Thursday.

Prokhorov has never been married and has no children. He has served as Norilsk chief executive since 2001.

Popular band Zveri confirmed Thursday that it had played in Courchevel at Prokhorov's invitation on Orthodox Christmas on Sunday.

The French operation followed an investigation into a suspected high-class prostitution ring that is believed to have operated in the Alps. Investigators suspect that the women involved worked only occasionally as prostitutes, and that they were recruited to come to the Alps from Russia over the holidays, the sources close to the inquiry said.

Investigators believe their pay came mainly in the form of expensive presents from luxury boutiques in the ski station, the sources said. That practice is also used by some prostitutes in the chic beach resorts of the French Riviera.

Police began the investigation last year after noticing suspicious trips by young Russian women heading through Geneva to the French Alps, with tickets booked through Austrian travel agencies, the sources said. Investigators were on the lookout for two waves of prostitutes arriving in Courchevel during the 2006-07 holiday season.

n Leading French presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy had a surprising reaction Thursday to news that Prokhorov was detained in a prostitution probe, quipping: "There's a man who wants to please."

Sarkozy made the offhand comment at a news conference detailing his record as interior minister, after a police official explained that Prokhorov had "proposed young Russian women" to guests whom he hosted in Courchevel.

"There's a man who wants to please -- that's curious," Sarkozy said, shrugging and smiling as he commented on the information from Martine Monteil, the head of France's judicial police.

Sarkozy, who heads the Union for a Popular Movement, is to be anointed as its presidential nominee on Sunday at a party convention.

(AP, MT)