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Hundreds swarm Stanford's Antigua bank

ST. JOHN’S, Antigua (Reuters) - Hundreds of people lined up at Texas billionaire Allen Stanford’s Antiguan bank on Wednesday seeking to withdraw funds, a day after the tycoon was charged with an $8 billion fraud.

Two police officers stood watch at the Bank of Antigua at midmorning as at least 600 people stood in a line stretching around a street corner, despite assurances from regional monetary authorities that the bank had sufficient reserves.

“I’m worried and I’d like to get my money out,” said Andrea Lamar, 28, who joined the line with a friend on a street popular with tourists in the state capital, St. John’s.

A woman in the queue who declined to give her name said, “I wasn’t panicked until I saw this crowd. Now I’m concerned.”

The six-nation Eastern Caribbean Central Bank posted a statement at Bank of Antigua saying many depositors had started to withdraw funds, “causing some anxiety,” but that the bank had sufficient reserves.

“However, if individuals persist in rushing to the bank in a panic, they will precipitate the very situation that we are all trying to avoid,” the statement said.

Bank of Antigua, with three branches in the tiny twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, is part of Stanford’s sprawling global business interests but is separate from an offshore affiliate at the heart of fraud charges lodged by U.S. regulators.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused Stanford, a brash, 58-year-old financier and sports entrepreneur, of operating an $8 billion fraud centered on the sale of certificates of deposit offered by Stanford International Bank Ltd (SIB), his Antiguan affiliate.

Stanford’s whereabouts were unknown.

Antigua’s prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, said in a televised address to the nation late Tuesday that the charges against Stanford could have “catastrophic” consequences for the nation, but he urged the public not to panic.

Holding dual U.S.-Antiguan citizenship, Stanford lived for more than 20 years in the reef-girded island, only 9 miles wide and 12 miles long with a population of just 70,000.

He owns the country’s largest newspaper, heads a local commercial bank, is the biggest private employer and its top investor, and is the first American to receive a knighthood from its government. He has homes sprinkled across the region, from Antigua to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Miami.

Some in the line at Bank of Antigua expressed hope that Stanford would evade arrest and preserve his investments in Antigua. “The charges come from America. They shouldn’t apply here. And he’s innocent until proven guilty,” said Sylvan Roberts, 43.

On Tuesday, about 15 federal agents, some wearing U.S. marshals jackets, entered the headquarters of Stanford’s company, the Stanford Group, in Houston, Texas.

Stanford’s assets have been frozen and a federal judge has appointed a receiver “to take possession and control of defendants’ assets for the protection of defendants’ victims.”