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Billionaire prominent in Georgian opposition dies in Britain after alleging murder plot
Georgia Opposition 5617772
Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili is seen at home in Tbilisi in this Oct. 23, 2003, file photo. Georgian opposition billionaire businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili has died in London of a heart attack, his spokesman said Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008. Patarkatsishvili, 53, died overnight, Guga Kvitaishvili said. - photo by Associated Press
    LONDON — The richest man in the former Soviet state of Georgia was found dead in his mansion near London less than two months after claiming he was the target of an assassination plot for helping lead a protest movement against his homeland’s government.
    British police said Wednesday a major crimes unit was investigating the death late Tuesday of 52-year-old billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, which they were treating as suspicious pending an autopsy.
    Patarkatsishvili built his fortune in Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union through a partnership with Boris Berezovsky — another self-exile who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal foes.
    His death drew comparisons to the 2006 radiation poisoning in London of ex-Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko. Moscow’s refusal to hand over the primary suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, has strained relations between Britain and Russia.
    Police found no trace of radiation at the Georgian’s mansion, Britain’s Press Association reported, citing police sources.
    ‘‘Even if it is a heart attack, the recent situation in England with the deteriorating relations with Russia has led people to be suspicious even when there aren’t any grounds to be suspicious,’’ Natasha Chouvaeva, editor of the Russian-language newspaper London Courier, said of Patarkatsishvili’s death.
    In a strange twist, Lugovoi provided security for Patarkatsishvili and his businesses for 13 years. The Georgian businessman had called Lugovoi a ‘‘close friend’’ and expressed doubt that he was involved in Litvinenko’s death.
    Berezovsky said relatives told him the opposition leader died of a heart attack. He said Patarkatsishvili had not been ill, but had complained about his heart when they met Tuesday.
    ‘‘I have lost my closest friend,’’ he told The Associated Press.
    Family members and other unidentified people were with Patarkatsishvili when he collapsed and died around 11 p.m. Tuesday in his home in Leatherhead, 20 miles south of London, police said.
    Police said they were tracing his movements over the previous 48 hours. Investigators hoped to conduct toxicology tests on the body Wednesday.
    ‘‘We are looking at every possible explanation for his death until we get confirmation — if we do — that he died of natural causes,’’ a police statement said.
    Patarkatsishvili was a leader and financer of a Georgia protest movement that sought to unseat President Mikhail Saakashvili, a former political ally who has been accused of having authoritarian leanings since ordering a crackdown on opponents in November.
    Campaigning from Britain, Patarkatsishvili ran for president in Georgia’s election last month, finishing third. Opposition groups allege the election was rigged.
    Patarkatsishvili told the AP on Dec. 26 that he had obtained a tape recording of an official in his homeland’s Interior Ministry asking a Chechen warlord to murder the tycoon in London. ‘‘I believe they want to kill me,’’ he said.
    It was not possible to verify his claim. He said the tape had been given to police.
    Scotland Yard said at the time that the Georgian had not contacted British police about any plot to kill him. On Wednesday, Scotland Yard said it wouldn’t discuss the alleged threat.
    Britain’s Foreign Office said it was aware of Patarkatsishvili’s death, but called it a matter for police in Surrey, in southeastern England.
    Patarkatsishvili was under investigation in Georgia on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. He denied the accusation, but acknowledged offering a senior official $100 million if Georgian police agreed not to use force against street protests after the January election.
    He left Georgia in November and lived in self-imposed exile in Britain and Israel.
    Among Patarkatsishvili’s businesses was the Imedi television station in Georgia. The station had been critical of Saakashvili’s government and is closed, at least temporarily.
    Patarkatsishvili became Berezovsky’s business partner in 1989. During Russia’s privatization drive in the 1990s, the pair invested in oil, airlines and the auto industry.
    Patarkatsishvili was responsible for their media holdings, including the national television network ORT, and for a time he owned the Moscow newspaper Kommersant.
    They each made nearly $1 billion from the sale of their stakes in ORT, the Sibneft oil company and Russian Aluminum, but the pair claimed in British court documents that the Kremlin forced them to give up their holdings for a fraction of their value.
    After Berezovsky fell out with the Kremlin, Patarkatsishvili moved from Russia to Georgia in 2001 when he was accused of helping a colleague try to break out of prison. Patarkatsishvili denied the charges and claimed the Kremlin had targeted him in a crackdown on independent media.
    He helped bankroll Georgia’s ‘‘Rose Revolution’’ that brought down Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime and put Saakashvili in the presidency in 2003. Patarkatsishvili and Saakashvili later fell out over policy differences.
    Patarkatsishvili is survived by his wife and two daughters.
    Associated Press writers Steve Gutterman and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.

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