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Switzerland freezes US$190m in Ukraine assets

Nearly $190 million in assets linked to ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and his inner circle have been frozen in Switzerland, Swiss authorities said on Wednesday.

GENEVA: Nearly $190 million in assets linked to ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych and his inner circle have been frozen in Switzerland, Swiss authorities said on Wednesday.

The wealthy Alpine nation, which was at the forefront of an international drive to quickly freeze funds linked to Yanukovych after he was ousted in February, has blocked a total of $187 million (137 million euros), officials said.

Upon government orders, $75 million in Ukrainian assets had so far been frozen, said Valentin Zellweger, head of the foreign ministry's international law department, disclosing the number for the first time.

The Swiss prosecutor general's office meanwhile told AFP it had launched a total of seven criminal probes against Ukrainians suspected of money laundering, blocking an additional 100 million Swiss francs ($112 million, 82 million euros) since Yanukovych's ouster on February 22.

Zellweger acknowledged that the amounts were "rather modest" in light of the reports that the former Ukrainian leader and his entourage had made off with billions.

But he suggested to reporters in Geneva that Swiss banks may have been particularly wary about taking in Ukrainian assets since the crisis-wracked country had been widely known for its "endemic corruption".

Kiev has already identified at least 35 billion Ukrainian hryvnias ($3 billion, 2.1 billion euros) in assets looted under Yanukovych's regime, Ukraine's general prosecutor Oleh Makhnitskyi told an international conference in April on recovering the country's lost assets.

He said he expected the eventual total to reach tens of billions of dollars.

Zellweger on Wednesday said Swiss authorities, who have plenty of experience with freezing the assets of dictators and eventually restituting them to the countries in question, had moved swiftly and with unprecedented international cooperation in the case of Ukraine.

Bern decided on February 26 to block assets belonging to Yanukovych and others and made the move public two days later, when Austria and Liechtenstein were ready to do the same.

"This is the first time that such freezes have been conducted on the same day," he said, noting that the EU had followed suit a few days later.

Moving quickly is vital to securing assets as well as the information needed for later prosecution and for returning money to the people it was stolen from, Zellweger said, pointing to Switzerland's more than quarter-century of experience in this area.

While it took Switzerland 17 years to give the Philippines 684 million francs embezzled by Ferdinand Marcos, he pointed out that the country would likely soon begin restituting 60 million francs linked to former Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali -- less than four years after his ouster.

He said a third conference on recovering assets embezzled by dictators who fell during the 2011 Arab Spring would likely be held in Geneva later this year.

For chronically unstable Ukraine, restitution still appears to be a way off, Zellweger said.

In total, Switzerland has since 2003 returned a total of around 1.8 billion Swiss francs embezzled by Marcos, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Vladimir Montesinos of Peru, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and others.

That is more than a quarter of the $4-5 billion in assets restituted globally.

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