Syria tycoon lashes out at state in fresh accusations

Damascus (AFP) –


Top Syria tycoon Rami Makhlouf on Sunday said the regime was piling pressure on him and threatening to arrest him and close his telecommunications empire unless he hands over profits.

Makhlouf, a first cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, made the latest accusations against the Damascus government -- the third since April -- in a 16-minute Facebook video.

The head of Syria's largest mobile operator, Syriatel, has been embroiled in a power struggle with the Assad government since last summer when authorities seized his Al-Bustan charity and dissolved militias affiliated to him.

When the finance ministry in December froze the assets of several businessmen over tax evasion and illicit enrichment, the Syrian press said Makhlouf, his wife and companies were included.

On Sunday he said authorities are "demanding we forefeit our company's profits" and hand over "120 percent of the profits to the state or else we will be arrested".

Failure to comply, he said, will prompt authorities to revoke Syriatel's licence.

At the end of April and again in early May, Makhlouf, who had kept a low profile throughout Syria's nine-year-war, posted online scathing attacks against authorities.

He said they were demanding $185 million in payments from Syriatel, urging Assad to intervene and reschedule the payment.

Makhlouf, who also has stakes in electricity, oil and real estate, has also accused security services of detaining employees to intimidate him into stepping down from his businesses.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, around 40 Syriatel employees and 19 from Al-Bustan have been arrested since April.

Condemning the arrests, Makhlouf claimed authorities would release the employees if he paid the $185 million and resigned as head of Syriatel.

Makhlouf said he would be willing to pay the amount demanded by authorities but the issue of his resignation was a red line.

"Whoever thinks I will resign under these conditions, doesn't know me," he said.

Makhlouf has long been seen as a pillar of the Syrian regime since Assad rose to power in 2000, succeeding his father Hafez.

But rumours have swirled in recent months of souring ties between Makhlouf and Assad, who is spearheading an anti-graft campaign in a bid to shore up state finances.

In an interview with Syrian state TV in October, Assad said that he has "called on everyone in the private sector who has squandered state funds to return the money".