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Russian Billionaire Detained on Suspected Link to Prostitution Ring

A Russian billionaire was detained in France for questioning as part of a crackdown on a suspected prostitution ring at an upscale ski resort, a prosecutor said this morning.

Mikhail Prokhorov, chief executive of Russian mining giant OAO Norilsk Nickel, was taken into custody Tuesday at the Alpine ski resort of Courchevel, a favored playground of Russia's super-rich, said prosecutor Xavier Richaud.

Prokhorov, 41, is ranked No. 89 on Forbes magazine's 2006 list of the world's richest people. He is worth $6.4 billion, according to Forbes, due to his holdings in Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel producer, and Polyus Gold, Russia's biggest gold miner.

Prokhorov was among 26 people arrested in several four-star hotels in Courchevel following an investigation into the suspected prostitution ring. Investigators also seized $65,000, authorities said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Prokhorov's alleged role in the case was not immediately clear. He was being held at police headquarters in Lyon, and a decision whether to charge him would likely be made later Thursday or Friday, Richaud said.

Sergei Chernytsin, chief spokesman for Norilsk Nickel, said the company had received no information about Prokhorov's arrest. "We expect him back at work on Monday," he said.

Police began the investigation last year after noticing suspicious trips by young Russian women to the French Alps with tickets booked through Austrian travel agencies, the French authorities said. Investigators were on the lookout for two waves of prostitutes arriving in Courchevel during the 2006-07 holiday season.

Russian tycoons flock to Courchevel, which has its own airstrip that can accommodate private jets, over the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays. Even among Russia's big-spending business elite, Prokhorov has a reputation for organizing lavish parties.

Those being questioned by police include seven young Russian women, as well as individuals suspected of bringing the women to France, the authorities said. About 15 people were still being held in custody, they said.

Investigators suspect the women worked only occasionally as prostitutes, and that they were recruited to come to the Alps from their native Russia over the holidays, the authorities said. Their pay came mainly in the form of expensive presents from luxury boutiques at the resort, they said. The practice is also common at the chic beach resorts of the French Riviera.