By Mai Nguyen
HANOI (Reuters) - Police in Vietnam have detained one of the country's biggest tycoons, the founder and chairman of conglomerate Ocean Group, on suspicion of financial irregularities, banking sources and state media said on Friday.
Vietnam's central bank said it had suspended Ha Van Tham from his role as chairman of the group's unlisted subsidiary, Ocean Commercial Joint Stock Bank, for "serious violations", but made no mention of his arrest, or what the breaches were.
Two banking and finance sources with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters Tham had been detained, but asked not to be identified because the issue was "sensitive".
Company officials, reached by telephone and asked to clarify market rumors about the detention, said they would issue a statement, but have not yet done so.
Ocean Group's rapid growth as one of Vietnam's most promising conglomerates has earned the United States-educated Tham numerous awards for entrepreneurship and he is widely regarded as one of Vietnam's richest men.
The firm has chartered capital of 3 trillion dong ($141.6 million) and has interests in real estate, banking, securities, retail, media and hotels.
Several state-run newspapers, citing unnamed police sources, said Tham would be held for at least four months pending further investigation into alleged lending violations.
Officials of the Hanoi police and Vietnam's police anti-fraud unit were not available for comment when contacted by Reuters.
The central bank said Tham was personally involved in violating laws and was barred from any activities at the bank.
"Through investigation, the State Bank of Vietnam has found some serious violations of the law by Mr. Ha Van Tham himself," it said in a statement.
If confirmed, the detention and police investigation would be the latest in a series of scandals involving Vietnamese bankers, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A slew of embezzlement cases is now being probed and several bankers have been jailed, with one even sentenced to death after having being found to have caused losses to the state.
Vietnam's communist government says it is in the midst of a shake-up to strengthen beleaguered banking and financial systems to stamp out fraud that went undetected during boom growth of 2003-2007, when the sector saw seemingly unrestrained expansion, but lax oversight.
Ocean Group shares have fallen as much as 15 percent since Wednesday on Vietnam's main stock market, which traders said was in response to market rumors of Tham's arrest.
Volume of trading in the stock hit a record high of 22.4 million shares on Thursday, or 15 percent of total volume. Ocean Group closed Friday down 2.68 percent, at 10,900 dong a share, but off an earlier low of 10,500.
($1=21,185 Vietnamese dong)
(Additional reporting by Minh Nguyen; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)