Black-uniformed special forces swept onto the airplane of Russia’s wealthiest man Saturday and forced him back to Moscow, where he was ordered jailed on criminal charges – a dramatic escalation of the politically charged probe into Russia’s largest oil company. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was charged Saturday with fraud, forgery and other crimes hours after the special forces troops, weapons drawn, surrounded his private plane at a Siberian airport. The dramatic arrest alarmed the country’s business and political elite. Two questions: Was it for criminal activity? Or was it a Kremlin-directed act to keep Khodorkovsky out of politics?

Khodorkovsky, who has openly funded opposition parties, is the latest of Russia’s superrich oligarchs to be pursued by President Vladimir Putin’s government. Tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky have gone into self-imposed exile to avoid criminal prosecution.

The Prosecutor General’s office charged Khodorkovsky with fraud, forgery, embezzlement and personal and corporate tax evasion, the news agency Interfax reported. A spokesman for the office told The Associated Press that charges had been filed, but gave no specifics.

The charges were filed in Moscow, where Khodorkovsky was brought after he was detained during a business trip in Novosibirsk, the main city of Siberia.

Khodorkovsky could be kept until Dec. 30 in a pre-trial detention facility, his lawyer Anton Drel said. The shabby and overcrowded detention units are widely considered worse than Russia’s prisons.

“The charges of the prosecutor are groundless. The detention of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is aimed at fanning a big scandal which would cover up the lack of evidence in the so-called Yukos case,” Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin told AP.

Shadrin said Khodorkovsky’s plane was surrounded by trucks after it landed in Novosibirsk and black-uniformed forces identifying themselves as FSB – the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB – boarded the plane shouting “put down your weapons or we’ll shoot.”

“They used sort of special forces as if they were dealing with a terrorist,” Shadrin said.

The 40-year-old Khodorkovsky, whose wealth was estimated by Forbes magazine at $8 billion, is one of the most prominent of Russia’s so-called “oligarchs” – men who made huge, quick fortunes after the collapse of the Soviet Union by acquiring state property at low prices in deals whose ethics came under question.

The oligarchs are greatly resented by large numbers of Russians who did not benefit from the privatization of state property. Both parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in the coming months, and the standing of pro-Kremlin parties among ordinary Russians has been strengthened by the pressure being put on oligarchs by the authorities.

Under Putin, authorities stripped Gusinsky of his media empire and charged him with fraud and have charged Berezovsky with fraud in connection with an automobile company. Both now live overseas, where courts have rejected Russian extradition requests.

Both Gusinsky and Berezovsky allege that the actions against them are a political vendetta in retaliation for criticism of Putin. The Kremlin says that the prosecutor’s office is an independent agency outside presidential control.

Khodorkovsky has given funding to the opposition Yabloko and Union of Right Forces parties and is believed to have personal political ambitions.

As head of the largest company dealing in Russia’s largest export commodity, Khodorkovsky can wield substantial influence, and his potency was likely to increase with Yukos’ recently finalized merger with Sibneft to create the world’s fourth-largest oil exporting company.

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