VIENNA A top Libyan official accused Austria on Saturday of betraying its liberal traditions by freezing his assets as part of a hunt for offshore wealth held by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his inner circle.
Austria on Friday added Mustafa Zarti, deputy head of the Libya Investment Authority (LIA) sovereign wealth fund, to its blacklist of suspected Gaddafi cronies, calling him a "close confidant of the regime in Libya.
Zarti, who has an Austrian passport and lived for years in Vienna as a youth, hit back in an interview with Reuters, denying any links to the clan other than Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, whom Zarti called a long-time friend.
"I wasn't expecting (the asset freeze order) from Austria as a liberal country. I was very surprised about that decision but I am very happy I am in Austria and there is a legal system where I will take my rights," he said by telephone.
He called the freeze an embarrassment for his family.
"That's the problem. I'm not even (by) myself. I have a kid. I have a wife," he said, upset that he had been portrayed in such a negative light by media.
Zarti, 40, distanced himself from accounts portraying him as a shrewd money manager who came to Austria from Libya last month to spirit away billions in clandestine Gaddafi clan wealth.
"That has no reality. It is really a joke," he said.
"The only one I know is Saif. He has been a friend of mine for a long time. But I have no connections with the Gaddafi family except through Saif."
Saif, a friend of the late far-right Austrian politician Joerg Haider, lived in a villa on the edge of Vienna while in the country and kept his two pet white tigers in the city's zoo.
DEAL ONLY WITH THE BEST
Zarti acknowledged coming to Austria on February 21, three days before resigning his post at the LIA, but said the trip was just to spend time on holiday with his family.
"I am here on a break with my wife. I have not taken any decisions on whether to stay here, go somewhere else or go back to Libya," he said, adding he was following the news of the tumultuous events back home via the media like everyone else. Set up to invest Libya's vast energy revenue for future generations, the LIA controls around $65 billion.
It boosted Libya's presence on the world stage by acquiring stakes in European blue-chip firms including Italian bank UniCredit and British publisher Pearson, owner of the Financial Times.
Zarti said the LIA had a stake of around 2 percent in Austrian brickmaker Wienerberger and had deposits in Austrian banks.
"Actually Austrian banks are very good banks. We have deposits here by the LIA in those banks. I don't how exactly how much because I'm not in a position to know that because I'm not in the treasury department, I'm a vice chairman," he said.
"But not only here, we have (deposits) all around the world. HSBC, BNP Paribas, you name it, they are good banks. We deal only with the high-ranking banks."
Austria's central bank chief said this week Libyan clients had about 1.2 billion euros ($1.68 billion) in the country's banks and that authorities were trying to find out how much of this might be connected to people under international sanctions.
Zarti said his resignation from the LIA meant he would also vacate other posts as a top executive of Libya's National Oil Corp and head of the Tamoil oil and petrol station group.
(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Jon Hemming)