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Protesters in London have occupied a £25 million ($32.6m) Belgravia mansion linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, days after the Kremlin associate was placed under UK government sanctions.
They broke into the house at 5 Belgrave Square on Monday and hung huge banners from its balconies.
Mr Deripaska was one of seven oligarchs added to the UK’s sanction list last week over ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“This property has been liberated”, read one flag, while another was scrawled with an anti-Putin message.
The imposters said they were part of the London Makhnovists, a group that takes inspiration from Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist and author.
Asked by The National if they had plans to occupy other homes linked to Russian oligarchs, one member said: “We are ready for more action. We will go further and we will do bigger. Only the police are standing in our way.”
The group said it planned to stay in the home until Russian troops ended their assault on Ukraine.
Members said they wanted to use the property to house refugees displaced by the wars in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Yemen, an idea not ruled out by government ministers.
“We are planning to stay until Putin stops the war,” one man said.
“We are saving the taxpayer money,” another protester said. “We are doing something that the public thoroughly support.”
Police looked on as the demonstrators raised their fists in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Men were seen rolling cigarettes on the balcony, three doors down from the Syrian embassy, and one sang and danced on the upper floor. One woman passing by shouted “Slava Ukraini” which translates as “Glory to Ukraine”.
Another passer-by who shouted his support for the group told The National he was from Ukraine. He said he “absolutely” backed the protesters’ vision for the mansion to accommodate refugees.
The man, who declined to give his name, said the UK’s sanctions on Mr Putin’s inner circle did not go far enough.
“I know that the British government has done a lot but sanctions are sanctions and there are a lot of loopholes people can use to hide away their money. They can put their properties in their children’s names,” he said.
Hours after the protest began, police officers wearing helmets and safety harnesses used a ladder to reach the balcony in a bid to oust the squatters.
One of the protesters sat on the edge of a balcony to obstruct officers who were trying to position the ladder.
Another shouted at officers: “We are peaceful protesters and you turn up in riot gear.”
Officers used a drill to break open the front door of the house to enter the property.
Two protesters used large potted plants to create a barricade, blocking themselves off from two Metropolitan Police officers who managed to reach a neighbouring balcony in a crane.
The pair were seen sharing a drink from a single glass while one man burst into song.
Another squatter shouted to people looking out of window of the building next door: “We are your new neighbours. We’ll come around tomorrow with some brisket.”
“Officers have completed a search of the property in Belgrave Square and are satisfied there are no protesters inside. We continue to engage with those on the balcony as we balance the need for enforcement with the safety of all involved,” the force said at about 2pm UK time.
One member of the group, who refused to give his name but said he was from Lithuania, said he and his group were prepared for the prospect of being arrested.
“All our group made peace with arrest because this was always one of the options,” he told the PA news agency by phone from the balcony.
“I’m ready to take the consequences for something I believe.”
He also said they had done “everything by the book” and had left “no criminal damage” in the property.
The man said that although he did not know whether he had committed an offence, he “would like to go to court and prove my point”.
“This house could house 200 people. We have been doing a job the government should do. We have liberated the property for refugees,” he said.
Mr Deripaska, an industrialist, is worth about £2 billion and has had close links with the British political establishment.
In 2008, he was embroiled in a row involving Labour politician Peter Mandelson and the shadow finance minister George Osborne. Both men met Mr Deripaska on his yacht.
The oligarch has a multimillion-pound property portfolio in Britain and stakes in En+ Group, an Anglo-Russian green energy and metals company.
Announcing the sanctions last week, the UK government said Mr Deripaska is “a prominent Russian businessman and pro-Kremlin oligarch”, who is “closely associated” with the government in Moscow and its president. Ministers said he is “involved in destabilising and threatening” Ukraine.
The British government said the oligarch had “been involved in obtaining benefit from or supporting the government of Russia, by carrying on business in, and owning or controlling and working as, a director or equivalent in businesses in the Russian extractives and energy sectors” particularly useful to the Kremlin.
Opposition MPs have criticised the British government’s sanctions regime, saying that ministers did not act soon enough.
Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea Football Club, is the most prominent person to face sanctions by the UK over his links to the Kremlin.
The government last week froze the billionaire’s assets and imposed a travel ban which prevents him from entering Britain.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Mr Abramovich, who holds Portuguese and Israeli passports, handed the day-to-day running of the football club to trustees of Chelsea’s charitable arm.
Days later, he announced he was selling the club and would donate the “net proceeds” to Ukrainians affected by the war.
But those efforts were not enough to shield him from sanctions imposed by the British government and the punitive measures have put the sale of Chelsea on hold.
The EU is said to be considering a ban on exports of luxury vehicles worth in excess of €50,000 ($54,730) to Russia.
The proposed ban, which could be approved as early as Monday, would apply to models from several European car brands, including Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Ferrari and Porsche, diplomats said.
Sources told Bloomberg the ban would also apply to boats and planes, as well as chairlifts and motorbikes worth more than €5,000.
Many European carmakers have voluntarily suspended sales to Russia.
The potential move is part of a broader fourth round of sanctions the EU is imposing on the country over its invasion of Ukraine.