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Billionaire says Russia unfairly targeting airline


Billionaire businessman Alexander Lebedev on Friday accused Russian officials of unfairly using a deadly crash to ground his Moscow-based airline, in the tycoon's latest brush with the authorities.

Lebedev, who part-owns Russia's most critical opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and whose son Evgeny Lebedev owns Britain's The Independent and Evening Standard dailies, suggested the move was part of an ongoing campaign to discredit him.

Earlier in the day the state air transport agency said it was suspending the operations of Lebedev's Red Wings airline after the company's passenger jet crashed in December killing five of its crew members.

The state air transport agency said the decision was unrelated to the December 29 crash in which a jet careened off the runway of a Moscow international airport and smashed into a highway. The crash is still under investigation.

It said the airline was experiencing financial problems which precluded it from ensuring proper maintenance of its fleet.

"Red Wings is experiencing a deficit of financial resources to ensure the current operations," Rosaviation said.

The state watchdog said that the probe had exposed "numerous significant violations in the organisation of technical maintenance of aircraft, training of pilots and other shortcomings."

The flights will be suspended from Monday, said the statement, encouraging those who were set to fly with the company in the near future to return their tickets.

Lebedev whose company operates a fleet of modern Tu-204 medium-range jets said the state watchdog was suspending the company's operations without a reason.

"There are no grounds for it," he told Echo of Moscow radio station.

Speaking to AFP, he added: "Russian officials decided that the Tu-204 is dangerous and because we are the only company to fly Tu-204 planes they decided to suspend us and not the plane type."

He also suggested in a Twitter post that the head of the increasingly powerful Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, was behind the state aviation watchdog's decision comparing him to Joseph McCarthy.

"Good for McCarthy-Bastrykin: he has managed to 'ground' Red Wings. He won over the government, the Kremlin and the Russian aviation industry."

U.S. Republican Senator McCarthy gained notoriety in the 1950s for his often unsubstantiated claims that Communists infiltrated the government.

Russia's Investigative Committee, the equivalent of the FBI, is now overseeing a host of probes into activists and Kremlin critics including Alexei Navalny, a leader of the protest movement.

Lebedev, who also has a stake in Russian flagship carrier Aeroflot, denied that Red Wings was struggling financially. He added the suspension would effectively mean the end of the company.

Oleg Panteleyev, head of aviation consultancy Aviaport, told AFP that many of the aviation watchdog's claims have been substantiated but added that Rosaviation did come under pressure from investigators to act tough on the airline.

"For Red Wings this is equal to death indeed," Panteleyev said.

Lebedev faces a possible jail term after he punched a guest on a television show in 2011. He faces charges of hooliganism, which carries a maximum five-year jail term, and assault, which carries two years.

A Moscow court is scheduled to open the trial against Lebedev on Thursday.

Last year the tycoon said he intended to wind down his Moscow holdings because of unrelenting pressure from the Kremlin-run security services after repeated raids on his main bank.

His son Evgeny Lebedev said in London in November that his father risked being assassinated if he were jailed in Russia.