Lithuania nationalizes bank amid fraud probe

November 17, 2011 - 8:40 AM

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Lithuania nationalized its fifth largest bank after it surfaced that assets, possibly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, had been moved offshore in recent days, Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said Thursday.

The Baltic state nationalized Snoras Bank on Wednesday and suspended all major operations until Monday while regulators and prosecutors sift through accounts in search of criminal activity, including fraud and money laundering. A temporary administrator was also appointed.

Snoras, which had assets worth 8.1 billion litas ($3.1 billion) at the end of September, was 68 percent owned by Russian businessman Vladimir Antonov, who recently tried to acquire the troubled Swedish carmaker Saab but was prevented from doing so by European and Swedish authorities over suspicions of money laundering.

"Officials from the temporary administrator...informed me that significant sums of money seem to have been moved to offshore accounts in recent days," Kubilius told public radio. "That is why the government took action...to protect depositors and the whole banking system from criminal activity by the shareholders."

Lithuanian businessman Raimondas Baranauskas, who owned just over 25 percent in Snoras, lashed out at the government's decision, calling it "robbery" and an attack on Antonov.

"Snoras was a normally managed and functional bank that did not have any problems. The bank was always solvent even though there were provocations (against it)," he told the Respublika paper.

Prosecutors said Thursday that wanted to question the bank's owners and managers and pledged to take "all measures" to locate and seize their assets both in Lithuania and abroad.

Both Antonov and Baranauskas were reportedly abroad at the time of nationalization.

Antonov, 36, is controlling owner of the Portsmouth football club and is believed to spend most of his time in England.

Government officials said that Lithuania's banking system is not at risk as a result of Snoras' problems, while the country's central bank has said it would renew the bank's operations on Monday.