The Syrian government ordered the seizure of assets belonging to President Bashar al-Assad's cousin Rami Makhlouf, one of Syria's richest men, as well as his wife and children, according to a government document reviewed by Reuters.
The document, stamped May 19 and signed by the Syrian finance minister, said the "precautionary seizure" aimed to guarantee payment of sums owned to the Syrian telecom regulatory authority.
Once at the heart of Assad's inner circle, Makhlouf has quarrelled with the authorities over funds which the government says are owed by his mobile phone company Syriatel. The unprecedented public tussle has uncovered a rare rift in the ruling elite.
Makhlouf has addressed the dispute in three extraordinary online video messages in which he has appealed to Assad himself to help save his firm. In his last message, released on Sunday, Makhlouf said he had been told to quit as the head of Syriatel.
The government says Syriatel owes 134 billion pounds, around $77 million at the current exchange rate on the parallel market.
Makhlouf on Tuesday posted a letter dated May 18 denying allegations by the Ministry of Telecoms that Syriatel had rejected payment of amounts it was required to pay in a dispute over its license.
Makhlouf, a maternal cousin of Assad, played a big role in financing Assad's war effort in the conflict under way since 2011, Western officials have said. He is under U.S. and EU sanctions.
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In addition to telecoms, his business empire spans real estate, construction and oil trading.
Syria experts say the row could mark the first major rift in decades within the family that has ruled the country since Assad's father Hafez took power 50 years ago.