FBI creating unit to trace corrupt foreign assets

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 29, 2014 4:40pm EDT

(From L to R) U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder scratches his ear as he answers a question during a news conference with Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May and Ukraine's acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky at the Ukraine Forum on Asset Recovery at Lancaster House in central London, April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

(From L to R) U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder scratches his ear as he answers a question during a news conference with Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May and Ukraine's acting Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky at the Ukraine Forum on Asset Recovery at Lancaster House in central London, April 29, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Winning

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI will create a unit to help trace the assets of corrupt foreign leaders, to complement an existing group of prosecutors focused on the issue, Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday.

The announcement comes as the United States scrambles to respond to unrest in Ukraine, and follows a new round of sanctions the United States announced on Monday over Moscow's involvement in the crisis.

Prosecutors, agents and other U.S. government officials have traveled to Ukraine to help authorities there recover assets allegedly stolen by former president Viktor Yanukovich's government, Holder said in remarks before a London conference on recovering Ukrainian assets.

Around one dozen agents and analysts will be part of the new FBI squad to support such efforts in Ukraine and elsewhere, he said.

A group of seven prosecutors at DOJ, created in 2010, have been focused on recovering the assets of so-called kleptocrats.

The group has helped to trace assets in the wake of the Arab Spring unrest. Last month it froze more than $458 million that former Nigerian leader Sani Abacha and his conspirators obtained through corruption and hid in bank accounts around the world.

"What we've seen is that the initiative has been very successful, the agents and prosecutors with this expertise are in great demand ... and in order to be able to ensure that the department has the resources the next time a kleptocratic regime falls, we need to have a dedicated rapid response team," David O'Neil, who is acting head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said in an interview.

U.S. investigators working in Ukraine in early March were able to help review documents recovered from the waters behind Yanukovych's palace, for example, including records of land transfers and engineering permits.

(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Ken Wills)

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