Russia's MTS says U.S. SEC seeks cooperation on Uzbekistan

MOSCOW, March 18 Tue Mar 18, 2014 10:17am EDT

MOSCOW, March 18 (Reuters) - Russia's top mobile-phone operator, MTS, said on Tuesday that U.S. financial regulators had asked for its cooperation in an investigation of the Uzbek telecoms market.

MTS said the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States had asked for "documents and information" related to its business in Uzbekistan, from which MTS was ousted in 2012. The SEC inquiry concerned "investigations into the activities of unaffiliated parties," MTS said.

International scrutiny of Uzbekistan has been growing, with the SEC investigating the operations of MTS's rival Vimpelcom and Sweden's TeliaSonera in the central Asian state. Swedish, Dutch and Swiss authorities are investigating alleged bribery and money laundering. The Swiss are also looking into Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan's president.

U.S.-listed MTS declined to say whether it had provided the documents or planned to do so.

"This offer (to provide documents) is of a voluntary nature and concerns third parties' activities," said MTS's chief financial officer, Alexei Kornya.

The company saw its Uzbek subsidiary's assets confiscated and took a $1.1 billion write-off in 2012 after a local court revoked its operating licence. MTS called the case a "classic shakedown" of foreign investors.

Vimpelcom said last week it was being investigated by SEC and Dutch authorities, apparently over operations in Uzbekistan. It had warned about possible investigations in 2012, because of its relationship with Takilant Ltd.

Takilant, a Gibraltar-based company, figures in a inquiry by Swedish prosecutors into allegations of corruption related to TeliaSonera's purchase of a 3G licence in Uzbekistan in 2007. On Monday, TeliaSonera said the investigations had widened to include the U.S. Department of Justice and SEC.

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