updated 1/11/2007 6:39:25 PM ET 2007-01-11T23:39:25

One of Russia’s wealthiest men, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, was taken into custody by French police in a crackdown on a suspected prostitution ring at a swank Alpine ski resort, officials said Thursday.

Investigators suspect Russian call girls were brought to the resort in Courchevel, a favored playground of Russia’s rich, to work during the winter holidays, authorities said. Clients allegedly paid the women with gifts from luxury boutiques.

A total of 26 people were taken in for questioning Tuesday, Prosecutor Xavier Richaud said. As of Thursday, 15 — including Prokhorov — were still being held in the southeast city of Lyon, officials close to the investigation said.

Among those arrested, the officials said, was an Austrian who runs a travel agency and is suspected of helping the Russian women find their way to two luxury hotels at the ski resort. The officials asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Some of the 15 could be placed under investigation — a step short of being charged — as early as Friday. They would face counts of “aggravated procuring in an organized band” and “criminal association,” the sources said.

Martine Monteil, director of France’s judicial police, said earlier that a Russian tycoon was in custody for allegedly offering young women to his guests. She did not identify Prokhorov by name.

Prokhorov, the 41-year-old chief executive of a Russian mining giant, is ranked No. 89 on Forbes magazine’s 2006 list of the world’s richest people. He is worth $6.4 billion, according to Forbes, largely thanks to his holding in OAO Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel producer, and Polyus Gold, Russia’s biggest gold miner.

The sporty, 6-foot-7 Prokhorov is often described as Russia’s most eligible bachelor. Even among Russia’s big-spending business elite, he has a reputation for organizing lavish parties.

The arrests occurred in several hotels at fashionable Courchevel, which has its own airstrip that can accommodate private jets. Russian tycoons flock to the resort over the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays.

Investigators also seized $65,000 at two four-star hotels in Courchevel, an official working on the probe said. The official was not authorized to speak to the media and requested anonymity. No drugs or weapons were found.

Those questioned include seven Russian women about 20 years old, as well as people suspected of helping bring the women to France, the official said. It was unclear whether the women were among those still in custody.

Gifts, not money
Police suspect the women involved worked only occasionally as prostitutes and that their pay likely came mainly in the form of expensive presents from luxury boutiques in the ski station, the investigating official said.

That practice is also used by some prostitutes in the chic beach resorts of the French Riviera. The official said the giving of gifts could complicate efforts to prove the women were prostitutes and not simply friends.

Police began the investigation last year after noticing suspicious trips by young Russian women heading through Geneva to the French Alps, with tickets booked through Austrian travel agencies, the official said. Investigators were on the lookout for two waves of prostitutes arriving in Courchevel during the 2006-07 holiday season.

Company denies allegations
Sergei Chernitsyn, head of the press department with Norilsk Nickel, said the company had received no information about Prokhorov’s arrest. He called the allegations “absurd.”

“We expect him back at work on Monday,” Chernitsyn said. The spokesman added that the company was “operating to plan” and would not be affected by Prokhorov’s detention.

Based on Russia’s Arctic edge in the Taimyr Peninsula, Norilsk Nickel also has the world’s biggest reserves of palladium, and its mines were at one point worked by inmates of Josef Stalin’s gulag.

A keen basketball player, Prokhorov has used his wealth to acquire Euroleague basketball champions CSKA. Skiing, jet skiing and kickboxing are among his favorite sports. He divides his time between Norilsk, Moscow, Saint Tropez on the French Riviera, and Courchevel, where he owns a chalet.

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