By Philippe Laurenson
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (Reuters) - Fugitive Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, accused of embezzling around $6 billion, was told by a French judge on Thursday that he faced extradition, but his family vowed to fight an expulsion it said was politically motivated.
The 50-year-old businessman, in hiding since being handed a jail sentence for contempt of court by an English judge 18 months ago, has been in custody in France since his arrest on Wednesday near the Riviera resort of Cannes.
He was arrested after investigators for BTA, the Kazakh bank he once controlled and which brought the vast fraud case against him in England, traced him to a villa in the area and tipped off local authorities that he was wanted by Interpol.
Armed police wearing balaclavas surrounded and then stormed the villa at around 11 a.m. (0900 GMT / 5:00 a.m. EDT). He did not resist arrest in an operation that lasted around 30 seconds, a source familiar with the arrest said.
Ablyazov, who denies fraud charges he says are designed by strongman Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to silence him as a political opponent, was arrested under an order from Kiev and is likely to be sent to Ukraine, the local prosecutor said.
However, Russia's Interior Ministry said it also intended to seek his extradition on fraud and forgery charges linked to the BTA case.
Ablyazov cannot be extradited to Kazakhstan, because it is not part of a Council of Europe extradition convention.
A lawyer close to the family said he suspected Ablyazov would be sent from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, which are former Soviet republics that have maintained close ties.
Two of Ablyazov's children, Madina and Madiyar, urged France not to extradite their father.
"We beg the French authorities not to grant Kazakhstan our father," they said in the statement. "Kazakhstan's pursuit of him is purely political. We are afraid for his life."
PROCEEDINGS COULD TAKE MONTHS
The hearing in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence wrapped up by around 1 p.m. (1100 GMT / 7:00 a.m. EDT), and Ablyazov was placed in provisional custody, his lawyer Bruno Rebstock told Reuters.
French legal sources said the extradition proceedings could take several months as judges would require proof from Ukraine that it had grounds for filing charges against him.
The prosecutor general's office in Kazakhstan - ruled for more than two decades by Nazarbayev - said it had been informed of Ablyazov's arrest by Interpol, which had him on a "Red Notice".
An English High Court judge in March effectively declared Ablyazov guilty of committing one of the largest frauds ever tried in Britain - although Ablyazov's lawyers said later that judgment was based on "unproven assumptions".
Ablyazov, a former government minister in Kazakhstan, has been debarred from defending himself against BTA's fraud charges because he ignored court orders to turn himself in and fully declare his assets.
His lawyers have been working on bringing a claim against the UK in the European Court of Human Rights because the English judicial system "failed to protect his right to a fair trial".
Kazakhstan, together with Russia and Ukraine, brought charges against Ablyazov after BTA was seized by the Kazakh sovereign wealth fund in 2009 and declared insolvent.
Ablyazov fled to London and was granted political asylum in 2011, giving BTA the jurisdiction to bring a civil claim against him on British soil. However, after a judge tried to jail him for contempt of court in Feb 2012, he went into hiding.
His wife, Alma Shalabayeva, and their six-year-old daughter Alua, were deported from Rome to Kazakhstan in May in a case that caused a furor in Italian politics.
The move was seen by some as a favor to Nazarbayev, in whose country Italy's energy giant Eni has invested billions of dollars.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille, Kirstin Ridley in London, Jason Bush in Moscow,; Natalie Huet and Alexandria Sage in Paris,; Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana, Dmitry Solovyov and Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty and Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev; Writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Mike Collett-White)