One of Russia's wealthiest men, billionaire metals magnate Mikhail Prokhorov, was taken into custody by French police in a crackdown on a suspected prostitution ring at an upmarket Alpine ski resort, officials said on Thursday.
Investigators suspect Russian call girls were brought to the resort in Courchevel, a favored playground of Russia's rich, to work during the holidays, authorities said. Clients allegedly paid the women with gifts from luxury boutiques.
A total of 26 people were taken in for questioning on Tuesday, Prosecutor Xavier Richaud said. As of Thursday, 15 were still being held in the southeast city of Lyon -- including Prokhorov -- and judicial officials extended their 48-hour detention period until yesterday, officials close to the investigation said.
An Austrian who runs a travel agency and is suspected of helping Russian girls make their way to two luxury hotels at the ski resort also was among the 15, the officials said. They were not authorized to discuss the case, and asked not to be identified.
Some of the 15 were expected to be placed under investigation -- a step short of being charged -- yesterday. They would face counts of "aggravated procuring in an organized band" and "criminal association," the sources said.
Martine Monteil, director of France's judicial police, said earlier that a Russian oligarch was in custody for allegedly offering young women to his guests. She did not identify Prokhorov by name.
Prokhorov, the 41-year-old chief executive of Russian mining giant OAO Norilsk Nickel, is ranked No. 89 on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people last year. He is worth US$6.4 billion, according to Forbes, largely thanks to his holding in Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel producer, and Polyus Gold, Russia's biggest gold miner.
The sporty, 2m tall Prokhorov is often described as Russia's most eligible bachelor. Even among Russia's big-spending business elite, he has a reputation for organizing lavish parties.
The arrests occurred in several hotels at fashionable Courchevel, which has its own airstrip that can accommodate private jets. Russian tycoons flock to the resort over the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays.
Investigators also seized US$65,000 at two four-star hotels in Courchevel, an official working on the probe said. The official was not authorized to speak to the media and requested anonymity. No drugs or weapons were found.
Those questioned include seven Russian women about 20 years old, as well as people suspected of helping bring the women to France, the official said. It was unclear whether they were among those still in custody.
Police suspect the women involved worked only occasionally as prostitutes and that their pay likely came mainly in the form of expensive presents from luxury boutiques in the ski station, the investigating official said.
That practice is also used by some prostitutes in the chic beach resorts of the French Riviera. The official said the giving of gifts could complicate efforts to prove the women were prostitutes and not simply friends.
Police began the investigation last year after noticing suspicious trips by young Russian women heading through Geneva to the French Alps, with tickets booked through Austrian travel agencies, the official said. Investigators were on the lookout for two waves of prostitutes arriving in Courchevel during the 2006 to 2007 holiday season.