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Russia angered by freezing of accounts in Belgium and France in $50 billion Yukos case

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MOSCOW — The Russian government on Thursday strongly condemned the freezing of Russian accounts in France and Belgium as part of an effort to enforce a $50 billion judgment for the destruction of the Yukos oil company.

An arbitration court in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled last year that Russia must compensate the former shareholders of Yukos, which was destroyed in a politically driven legal onslaught that also sent its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to prison for 10 years.

The Foreign Ministry on Thursday summoned Belgium's ambassador and warned that Moscow would consider taking similar action against Belgian accounts and property in Russia if the accounts of the Russian companies and diplomatic missions in Belgium were not released.

Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said his government would challenge the seizures, considering them illegal, but he also acknowledged that Russia must be prepared for similar action elsewhere. He repeated that Russia had no intention of paying the $50 billion.

Tim Osborne, director of GML, a holding company created for Yukos' five major shareholders, said the judgment was "rolling out" in France and Belgium, with the expectation that it would continue in Britain and the United States.

He said France and Belgium have frozen multiple bank accounts linked to the Russian government, beginning more than a week ago in France and on Wednesday in Belgium. He did not know the number of accounts or their balances, but said he expected GML would ultimately be able to recover the funds.

"It'll take years but it'll get done eventually," Osborne said.

The Foreign Ministry said it issued a protest to Belgian Ambassador Alex Van Meeuwen, describing the freezing of the accounts as an "openly unfriendly act and gross violation of the recognized norms of international law."

The accounts frozen in Belgium include those of Russia's embassy, its missions to the European Union and NATO, and of a number of Russian companies, the ministry statement said. It made no mention of the seizures in France.

Ulyukayev said the amount of Russians funds frozen in France and Belgium was "insignificant," but he gave no specifics in remarks carried by Russian news agencies from St. Petersburg, where Russia's annual investment forum opened Thursday.

The frozen accounts in France include those of Russian companies held in the French subsidiary of Russian state bank VTB, Russian news agencies reported, citing VTB. No details were given.

The Permanent Court for Arbitration ruled in July that the Russian government had used tax claims to take control of Yukos and silence Khodorkovsky, who had used his vast wealth to challenge the power of President Vladimir Putin. After Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint in 2003, Yukos was dismantled and the main assets of what had been Russia's largest oil producer were taken over by state oil company Rosneft.


Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

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