Rami Makhlouf rejects gov't demand to step down from Syriatel

Rami Makhlouf was part of the president's inner circle and played a signifcant role in financing al-Assad's war effort.

    Syrian tycoon Rami Makhlouf said on Sunday that authorities set a deadline for him to resign from top mobile operator Syriatel or they would revoke its licence - but he vowed not to step down.

    Makhlouf said the government was piling pressure on him and threatening to arrest him unless he handed over company profits.

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    In a 16-minute Facebook video - the third he has issued publicising a rift with his cousin Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - Makhlouf said the collapse of Syriatel, a main revenue earner for the government, would deal a "catastrophic" blow to the economy.

    Makhlouf was part of the president's inner circle and has played a big role in financing al-Assad's war effort, Western officials say, citing his business empire that includes telecoms, real estate, construction and oil trading.

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    "'If you don't comply ... the licence will be revoked,' and they said you have until Sunday to either comply or the company will be taken and its assets seized," Makhlouf said.

    It was not clear when the video was taken and if he meant this Sunday or next.

    "You are, by this, destroying the economy of Syria," said Makhlouf.

    He added authorities were "demanding we … hand over 120 percent of the profits to the state or else we will be arrested".

    Power struggle

    This month Makhlouf accused security forces of arresting his employees in an "inhumane way" in an unprecedented attack from within the system by one of the country's most influential figures.

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

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

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

    Makhlouf 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, about 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 $185m 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 government since al-Assad rose to power in 2000, succeeding his father Hafez.

    But rumours have swirled in recent months of souring ties between Makhlouf and al-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, the Syrian president said he has "called on everyone in the private sector who has squandered state funds to return the money".

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    SOURCE: News agencies