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Swiss join Europe-wide sweep against money launderers

The Russian mafia is believed to be at the centre of a Europe-wide money laundering network

(swissinfo.ch)

Businessmen in Geneva, St Gallen and Ticino are among a list of hundreds of suspects in an Italian-led operation against money laundering.

Codenamed "Operation Spiderweb", the global operation led to 50 arrests and at least 300 searches being carried out in Italy on Monday. Goods to the value of €100 million (SFr147 million) were also seized during the arrests.

In Switzerland, the federal police office said it had frozen several accounts held at banks in Ticino, St Gallen and Geneva, in response to a request for legal assistance from Rome.

According to a report from the federal prosecutor's office in Bologna, at least 150 people and hundreds of businesses across Europe are suspected of being involved in a vast money laundering network, possibly controlled by the Russian mafia.

The illicit funds are thought to stem from a Russian base with links to European organised crime, with money being "laundered" to European banks from Russia by means of forged bills and banking orders.

The money was then subsequently sent back to Russia or used to purchase goods such furniture, clothing and agricultural machines for export. Numerous businesses across Europe were involved in the network, investigators said.

Rimini duo

A Rimini-based business called Prima is thought to have been at the centre of the laundering network. The company was active at all levels of the operation, carrying out tasks as diverse as information technology and management to commerce, investigators said.

The two Russian brothers who headed the business, Oleg and Igor Berezovski, also built up links with numerous companies in Switzerland, according to Italian authorities.

Swiss companies

Investigators named several Swiss businesses, including Transrail Holding in St Gallen, Camasa in Ticino and two Geneva-based financial companies, Olympia Investments and Management and V&I Financial, which have all previously come under investigation by Swiss authorities.

Italian investigators suspect several senior managers of these companies, including Russians currently living in Switzerland, of involvement in money laundering and other fraud.

In 2000, a former Russian director of Olympia confirmed that the small company had netted a lucrative deal to supply Philip Morris cigarettes to the Moscow area, which represents 30 per of the Russian market.

Bank of New York

Operation Spiderweb follows an investigation in 1999 concerning the financial dealings of Benex, Lowland and Becs, companies which deposited funds totalling $7 billion into separate accounts at the Bank of New York.

The funds were then illegally transferred to offshore accounts, with at least SFr850 million passing through Swiss banks.

Investigators discovered that the companies were a screen for illegal activities by Russian banks and also involved one of the Bank of New York's senior managers, Lucy Edwards, and her husband.

Analysts now believe that the money laundering activities of the Russian mafia may have transferred from New York to Italy following the investigation.

By Luigino Canal, translated by Vanessa Mock

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