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

BELGRADE Wed Dec 12, 2012 4:50am EST

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Billionaire retail tycoon Miroslav Miskovic, one of Serbia's most influential figures, was arrested with his son and seven other people on Wednesday as part of an anti-graft probe, a government official said.

"They are suspected of siphoning funds and property from privatized road maintenance companies and making financial gains of as much as 30 million euros ($39 million)," the official, who asked not to be named, 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 euros ($1.3 billion), 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 ($1.85 billion) 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.

The government official said they would be remanded in custody for 48 hours and questioned by organized crime prosecutors.

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 organized 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 organized crime and corruption, the government official said.

In 2003, Serbia's then pro-Western Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in a plot by nationalists, an organized 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)

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