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Belarus charges Anzhi owner in potash probe

Suleiman Kerimov (left) watches Anzhi Makhachkala play Young Boys in a Europa League game in Moscow last October.

Belarus on Monday charged the billionaire owner of Russian football club Anzhi Makhachkala, Suleiman Kerimov, as part of a criminal probe into the potash sector which has already strained ties between Moscow and Minsk.

The Belarussian Investigative Committee opened a criminal probe against Kerimov into suspected abuse of authority which has a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison, it said in a statement.

It said Kerimov, who is based in Russia, should be placed under arrest and issued an arrest warrant for his detention.

The charges relate to a probe that last week saw the chief executive of Russia's main potash producer Uralkali, Vladislav Baumgertner, detained at Minsk airport and placed in custody.

Uralkali in July pulled out of a joint venture with the Belarus state-owned potash producer Belaruskali that put an end to a cartel which had kept up prices in the global potash industry.

Belarussian investigators claim to have uncovered an illegal scheme by Baumgertner and other Uralkali managers to enrich themselves at a cost of $100 million to Belarus.

Uralkali has dismissed the charges as absurd and Moscow has called on Minsk to immediately release Baumgertner, saying the arrest goes against the good relations between the two countries.

Kerimov has a shareholding of over 20 percent in Uralkali and is believed to have suffered massive losses when its share price plunged after the Belarus joint venture was ended.

He subsequently began a surprise sell-off of the international stars he had brought to Anzhi Makhachkala in a bid to rapidly make it a world-class side.

The sell-off saw players of the quality of Russian captain Igor Denisov, Brazilian star Willian and Cameroon legend Samuel Eto'o all leave the club within a matter of weeks.

Kerimov's lawyer Anatoly Kucherena rubbished the claims and dismissed the investigation as a "complete absurdity", Interfax reported.

"I even do not know how to carry out the defence, whom to defend him (Kerimov) against. Who do I have to address and how, through the press service of the Belarussian Investigative Committee?" he asked.

However the lawyer said that the arrest warrant could deter his client from travelling abroad. Kucherena is widely known as the lawyer of US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who was last month given asylum by Russia.

According to the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, Kerimov is Russia's 20th richest man with an estimated fortune of $7.1 billion.

The arrest of Baumgertner shocked observers, given the regime of strongman Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is hugely dependent on cheap energy imports from Russia and Russian credits to keep its economy afloat.