(MENAFN - AFP) Fugitive Croatian business mogul Ivica Todoric was arrested in London on Tuesday on a European warrant, suspected of falsifying accounts to hide his crisis-hit company's huge debts.
The 66-year-old boss of Balkan food and retail giant Agrokor was due to appear in court later on Tuesday, British police said, following his arrest on a warrant issued last month by Croatian authorities.
Along with 14 others, including his two sons and other former top executives at the company, Todoric is suspected of abuse of trust, forging official documents and failure to keep proper business records.
Croatia's government in April named a crisis manager to lead a restructuring process at the company, whose debts are estimated to total at least 5.4 billion euros ($6.3 billion).
Agrokor is almost as important as tourism to Croatia's economy, with revenues accounting for 15 percent of the European Union member's gross domestic product (GDP).
With around 60,000 jobs it is the largest employer in the Balkans, and its network of suppliers means tens of thousands more jobs are at stake.
Todoric, the prime suspect in the probe and known in Croatia as "The Boss", has in a personal blog repeatedly accused the government of abuse of power and of illegally taking control of his company.
He has claimed to be a victim of "political persecution" and local media speculate that he will fight his extradition on those grounds.
"Usual procedure follows. Todoric has rights as a suspect, I believe he will use them and I don't want to speculate on time frames" of further developments, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told reporters when asked about the arrest.
Twelve people were detained in October in a series of raids in the Croatian capital, including at Todoric's home, but neither he nor his sons were found.
Both his sons have since been questioned by prosecutors.
- Post-war role model -
Todoric started in the flower business in the 1970s and founded Agrokor just before communist Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, leading to the privatisation of state-owned companies.
The entrepreneur was initially seen as a role model who helped Croatia's post-war economy recover with his successful business empire.
He became one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the Balkans, but critics accuse him of abusing his monopoly position and becoming untouchable.
Agrokor, which ran up its debt through aggressive expansion and expensive borrowing, will face bankruptcy proceedings if the restructuring process is not successful by next July.
Two-thirds of Agrokor's employees are in Croatia, with the rest spread across neighbouring Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia.
The group's leading business is the supermarket chain Konzum, but it has acquired a wide range of companies including in agriculture, food production, tourism and distribution.
The crisis erupted in January when Agrokor withdrew from a loan deal with international creditors, triggering a surge in its bond yields.
The company is indebted in particular to Sberbank and VTB, two Russian state-controlled banks, to whom it owes about 1.1 billion euros and 300 million euros respectively.