Police arrest Serbia's richest man in anti-graft probe

BELGRADE Wed Dec 12, 2012 12:19pm GMT

Miroslav Miskovic, Serbian billionaire retail tycoon, speaks during a media conference in Belgrade December 9, 2008. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Miroslav Miskovic, Serbian billionaire retail tycoon, speaks during a media conference in Belgrade December 9, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Marko Djurica

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Billionaire retail tycoon Miroslav Miskovic, one of Serbia's most influential figures, was arrested with his son and eight other people on Wednesday as part of an anti-graft probe, the top organised crime prosecutor said.

"According to charges .... as co-owners of privatised road maintenance companies between 2005 and the end of 2010, they have siphoned funds and property and made financial gains of as much as 2.9 billion dinars," Miljko Radisavljevic, Serbia's Chief Prosecutor for Organised Crime, told Reuters.

Estimated to be Serbia's richest man, Miskovic has interests in retail, agribusiness, real estate and insurance in Serbia and the Balkan region.

He created his Delta Holding empire under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic during Yugoslavia's bloody collapse in the 1990s and expanded it after his ouster in 2000.

Miskovic, 67, was worth a billion dollars in 2007, according to Forbes, wealth which at the time placed him among the richest 1,000 people in the world.

In 2011 he sold his Delta Maxi supermarket chain to Delhaize, a Belgium-based retailer, for 932.5 million euro, one of the largest foreign investments ever in the European Union applicant country.

Miskovic has twice been questioned by police in the past 10 days. Delta Holding, on behalf of Miskovic, has repeatedly denied any irregularities in its business dealings.

The company employs 7,200 people and turned over 1.42 billion euros last year, according to its website.

Among those arrested are Miskovic's son Marko, who police last week prevented from leaving the country, and Milo Djuraskovic, the owner of a now-bankrupt group of road maintenance companies called Nibens.

Radisavljevic said they would be remanded in custody for 48 hours and questioned by organised crime prosecutors.

"The police made a huge effort to collect an impressive quantity of evidence. There will also be a separate probe into their finances," he said.

Over the past several months, police in Serbia have arrested more than a dozen businessmen, including two ex-cabinet ministers from the former ruling Democratic Party, on charges of corruption, fraud and abuse of office.

Serbia's six-month-old government, an alliance of socialists and nationalists last in power at the tail end of Milosevic's 13-year-rule, says it is serious about rooting out organised crime and corruption as the country seeks membership of the European Union.

Following Miskovic's arrest, police stepped up security of Aleksandar Vucic, the deputy prime minister tasked with fighting organised crime and corruption, said a police official who asked not to be named.

In 2003, Serbia's then pro-Western Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in a plot by nationalists, an organised crime gang and disgruntled members of a now-disbanded special police unit.

Some Western diplomats, however, fear the government is motivated more by political score-settling than genuine reform. ($1 = 0.7693 euros)

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Louise Heavens)

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