UPDATE 1-U.S. freezes $458 mln hidden by Nigerian ex-leader -prosecutors

Wed Mar 5, 2014 3:51pm EST

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(Adds background and details of legal action, paragraphs 3-10)

By David Ingram

WASHINGTON, March 5 (Reuters) - The United States has frozen more than $458 million that former Nigerian leader Sani Abacha and his conspirators obtained through corruption and hid in bank accounts around the world, the U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday.

About $313 million was restrained in bank accounts in the Bailiwick of Jersey and $145 million was restrained in bank accounts in France, the department said in a statement.

The department said it was pursuing additional holdings in the United Kingdom with an expected value of at least $100 million, but that the exact amount would be determined later.

Abacha died in 1998 at age 54. Nigeria has for years been fighting to recover his money, but companies linked to the Abacha family have gone to court to prevent repatriation.

The former military dictator looted between $3 billion and $5 billion of public money during his five years ruling Africa's top oil producer from 1993 to 1998, according to Transparency International.

In November, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking the recovery of money that had been identified in overseas bank accounts. A judge in Washington, D.C., unsealed the lawsuit on Wednesday.

Named with Abacha as conspirators in the suit were his son Mohammed Sani Abacha and Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, whom the suit called their associate.

They laundered money through the purchase of bonds backed by the United States using U.S. financial institutions, according to prosecutors.

Last month, U.S. arrest warrants for the assets were enforced in France as well as in the Bailiwick of Jersey off the coast of Normandy, through mutual legal assistance requests and in the United Kingdom through litigation, the Justice Department said.

The assets were held in banks including Deutsche Bank AG, HSBC Holdings PLC and Banque SBA, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also seeks the forfeiture of five corporate entities registered in the British Virgin Islands. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller and Chizu Nomiyama)

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