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US seizes yacht docked in Spain and owned by Russian oligarch

The United States government has seized a mega-yacht in Spain owned by an oligarch with close ties to the Russian president, the first in the government’s sanctions enforcement initiative to “seize and freeze” giant boats and other pricey assets of Russian elites.

Spain’s Civil Guard and US federal agents descended on the yacht Monday at the Marina Real in the port of Palma de Mallorca, the capital of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

The US had issued a seizure warrant for the vessel, named the Tango, alleging it “was subject to forfeiture based on violation of U.S. bank fraud, money laundering, and sanction statutes,” the US Department of Justice said in a statement.

Documents tied to the US investigation allege that Viktor Vekselberg bought the Tango in 2011 and used shell companies to hide his interest in the vessel, the Justice Department said.

Vekselberg, who had been sanctioned by the US in 2018, used US banks to make payments related to the Tango in violation of those sanctions, the department said.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland said it was the first seizure by the US of an asset belonging to a Russian sanctioned individual and “will not be the last”.

“Together, with our international partners, we will do everything possible to hold accountable any individual whose criminal acts enable the Russian government to continue its unjust war,” Garland said in the statement, referring to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Associated Press reporters at the scene saw police entering and leaving the boat on Monday morning.

A Spanish Civil Guard spokesman confirmed that officers from the Spanish police body and from the FBI were at the marina searching the vessel Monday morning and said further details would be released later.

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Tango, a 78-metre (255-foot) vessel, carries the Cook Islands flag. Superyachtfan.com, a specialised website that tracks the world’s largest and most exclusive recreational boats, has valued it at $120m.

Vekselberg, a billionaire and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, heads the Moscow-based Renova Group, a conglomerate encompassing metals, mining, tech and other assets, according to US Treasury Department documents.

All of Vekselberg’s assets in the US are frozen and US companies are forbidden from doing business with him and his entities.

The seizure of Tango is the first under the US task force KleptoCapture, launched in early March to enforce sanctions on Russians connected to the leadership after the country invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Vekselberg has long had ties to the US, including a green card he once held and homes in New York and Connecticut. The Ukrainian-born businessman built his fortune by investing in the aluminium and oil industries in the post-Soviet era.

Vekselberg was also questioned in US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and has worked closely with his American cousin, Andrew Intrater, who heads the New York investment management firm Columbus Nova.

Vekselberg and Intrater were thrust into the spotlight in the Mueller probe after the attorney for adult film star Stormy Daniels released a memo that claimed $500,000 in hush money was routed through Columbus Nova to a shell company set up by former US President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

Columbus Nova denied that Vekselberg played any role in its payments to Cohen.

Vekselberg has also been sanctioned by authorities in the United Kingdom.

Monday’s capture is not the first time Spanish authorities have been involved in the seizure of a Russian oligarch’s superyacht.

Officials there said they had seized a vessel valued at over $140m and owned by the CEO of a state-owned defence conglomerate and a close Putin ally.

French and Italian officials have also seized yachts and assets linked to Russian oligarchs.

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