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Police: Boris Berezovsky, self-exiled Russian tycoon and Putin rival, found dead in England

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LONDON - Boris Berezovsky, a self-exiled and outspoken Russian tycoon who had a bitter falling out with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been found dead in southeast England. He was 67.

In recent years, the one-time Kremlin powerbroker-turned-thorn in Putin's side fended off attacks on his character and on his fortune — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — in cases that often bore political undertones.

Thames Valley police said Berezovsky's death was being treated as unexplained. They would not directly identify him, but when asked about him by name they read a statement saying they were investigating the death of a 67-year-old man at a property in Ascot, a town 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of London.

A mathematician-turned-Mercedes dealer, Berezovsky amassed his wealth during Russia's chaotic privatization of state assets in the early 1990s. In return for backing former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he gained political clout and opportunities to buy state assets at knockdown prices, making a fortune in oil and automobiles.

He also played a key role in the rise of Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, but later fell out of favour with the new leader and fled to Britain to seek political asylum in the early 2000s.

Berezovsky was one of several so-called Russian "oligarchs" to butt heads with Putin.

After coming into power, the Russian president effectively made a pact: the oligarchs could keep their money if they didn't challenge him politically. Those who refused found themselves in dire circumstances. Some were imprisoned — like the former Yukos Oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky — while others, like Berezovsky, fled.

Assets of these pariah businessmen, meanwhile, were acquired by state corporations or co-operative tycoons, often at bargain prices.

In the U.K., Berezovsky allied himself with an array of prominent Kremlin critics. Among them was ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who fled Russia with Berezovsky's help after accusing officials there of plotting to assassinate political opponents.

Litvinenko died on Nov. 26, 2006, after drinking tea laced with a lethal dose of the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 in a London hotel. From his deathbed, Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of orchestrating his poisoning, and British police named former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi as the prime suspect.

Both Lugovoi and the Kremlin denied the accusations, with the former instead claiming that Berezovsky — whom Russia consistently sought to extradite on a wide variety of criminal charges — engineered his friend's death as a way of embarrassing the Kremlin and buttressing his refugee status.

Berezovsky, who considered Litvinenko a close friend, consistently denied the allegations. In 2010, he won a libel case against Kremlin-owned broadcaster All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting, which aired a show in which it was suggested he was behind the former agent's poisoning.

Berezovsky recently has made headlines for costly legal battles, which have dealt serious blows to his finances.

Last year, the Russian business magnate was ordered to pay 35 million pounds ($53.3 million) in legal costs to fellow Russian Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, after losing a multimillion-dollar legal battle against him.

Berezovsky had claimed that Abramovich cheated him out of his stakes in the oil group Sibneft, arguing that he blackmailed him into selling the stakes vastly beneath their true worth after he lost Putin's good graces. But a judge threw out the case in August, ruling that Berezovsky was a dishonest and unreliable witness.

It also recently emerged that Berezosky ran up legal bills totalling more than 250,000 pounds in a case against his former partner, Elena Gorbunova, with whom he had two children and who claimed the businessman owed her millions.

Earlier this week, The Times of London newspaper reported that Berezovsky was selling property — including an Andy Warhol portrait of the former Soviet Union leader Vladimir Lenin — to settle his debts and pay expenses owed to lawyers.

The Russian president's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a telephone interview on state television that Berezovsky had sent a letter to Putin about two months ago asking to be allowed to return to Russia. In the letter, Berezovsky acknowledged having made many mistakes, Peskov said.

Peskov said he did not know how Putin reacted to news of the death.

"But you can say that information about the death of someone, no matter who he was, cannot elicit positive emotions," the spokesman said.

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Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd

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