MOSCOW (AFP) — Russia's secret service has charged two Russian-Americans with industrial espionage, the service was quoted as saying Thursday, a day after raids on the offices of British oil major BP in Moscow.
The two men "were illegally collecting secret commercial information for a number of foreign oil and gas companies with the aim of gaining concrete advantages against Russian competitors," said a statement from the FSB secret service, Russian news agencies reported.
Industrial espionage is punishable in Russia by up to two years in prison.
The men arrested were an employee of British-Russian oil company TNK-BP and his brother, who is the head of the British Alumni Club, an association supported by the British embassy in Moscow, Russian news agencies reported, citing the FSB statement.
The statement said the surname of the two brothers was Zaslavsky.
A British embassy spokesman named the British Alumni Club president as Alexander Zaslavsky. Sources in the British university graduate community in Moscow who requested anonymity named the other suspect as Ilya Zaslavsky.
Both were believed to be graduates of Oxford University, the sources said.
Russian news agencies said the two held both Russian and US citizenship.
"We have seen the press reports. However as a matter of policy we don't comment on consular matters of a legal nature," said a US embassy spokesman.
The FSB security service could not immediately be reached for comment, but in London, the British Council -- which promotes British education and culture overseas -- expressed concern.
"Mr Zaslavsky and his brother are both members of the British Alumni club, for Russian nationals who have studied in the United Kingdom," it said, adding that as such they valued contact with the British Council.
It stressed, however, than neither man was a member of the British Council, which in January was forced to suspend its work in Saint Petersburg after Russian authorities alleged irregularities in its status.
News of the arrests came after raids on Wednesday by security officers on BP and its Russian joint venture TNK-BP, which was set up in 2003 and is now Russia's third largest oil company.
TNK-BP is jointly owned by BP and a group of Russian investors. It has faced growing pressure in Russia, where the state has reasserted control in the lucrative oil and gas industries.
"TNK-BP is a Russian company. We operate on Russian soil and we operate always within the framework of Russian legislation," said a company statement read to AFP over the telephone by a spokeswoman.
"We have never countenanced or supported any actions which try and counter Russian legislation or fair business practice," the statement continued.
A spokesman for the British embassy said: "We're monitoring the situation and we're in contact with BP."
The two men were arrested on March 12 while attempting to receive classified information from a Russian citizen who was an employee at a closed facility in Russia's oil and gas sector, the FSB statement was quoted as saying.
They were charged with espionage on Tuesday and the next day raids were conducted on BP and TNK-BP in connection with the criminal investigation opened into their case by the secret service, the statement said.
"During the raids, material proof confirming the industrial espionage was found and confiscated" including classified official documents and "business cards of employees of foreign military agencies and the CIA," it continued.
Russian newspapers said Wednesday's raids on BP and TNK-BP could be part of a wider effort to force a sale of part of the joint venture, a potential deal which has been rumoured for months.
The Kommersant daily cited sources within TNK-BP saying that the raids could be aimed at reducing the share price so that part of the company could be sold off more cheaply to state-run gas monopoly Gazprom.
Gazprom has denied rumours that it wants to buy a stake in TNK-BP.
TNK-BP has already been the subject of inquiries by the FSB for alleged breaches of Russian legislation on state secrets, which forbids foreigners from accessing information about Russia's energy reserves.
Last year, TNK-BP sold Gazprom a majority stake in the vast Kovykta gas field in Siberia at a heavily discounted price after coming under pressure from Russian officials for alleged breach of contract.
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