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Russia science park Skolkovo hit by fraud probe

A board, displaying the logo of the Skolkovo Innovation Center, is pictured in Moscow, September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
A board, displaying the logo of the Skolkovo Innovation Center, is pictured in Moscow, September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian authorities are investigating two Skolkovo officials after auditors uncovered suspected embezzlement of budget funds, in a setback to a plan to create a Silicon Valley-style technology hub outside Moscow.

A pet project of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Skolkovo was set up in 2010 to help incubate innovative companies in high-tech industries as part of efforts to diversify the oil and gas-dependent Russian economy.

While Skolkovo has won backing from more than 20 global high-tech giants such as Microsoft and Cisco, many observers say that a broader state-led drive to diversify the economy is delivering poor results.

Russia's Investigative Committee said in a statement it had opened a criminal investigation into the Skolkovo Foundation's finance director, Kirill Lugovtsev, and the head of the Skolkovo Customs Finance Company Vladimir Khokhlov, among others.

The opening of such an investigation in Russia would typically, but not necessarily, precede the filing of criminal charges.

The investigators said they suspected around 24 million roubles ($800,000) allocated to develop Skolkovo had been stolen, adding documents provided by the state Audit Chamber and the Federal Security Service were the basis for the case.

The Audit Chamber has revealed violations in respect of 1.4 billion roubles of funds, business daily Vedomosti reported. A spokeswoman for the chamber declined to comment, saying the results of the Skolkovo audit were deemed classified information.

Alexander Chernov, vice president of the Skolkovo Foundation in charge of communications, declined to comment on the criminal case. He said Lugovtsev had left the foundation, while Khokhlov was still in the job but was on temporary leave.

Neither Lugovtsev nor Khokhlov could immediately be reached for comment.

The Investigative Committee, Russia's counterpart to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, is a government agency that reports to President Vladimir Putin.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Louise Ireland and Helen Massy-Beresford)

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