LONDON — Britain's special white-collar crime prosecutors said Monday that they will investigate the Bank of Credit and Commerce International SA, whose operations have been closed in 11 countries because of fraud allegations.
The disclosure by the Serious Fraud Office coincided with word that Abu Dhabi's ruler, Sheik Zayed ibn Sultan al Nuhayan, who holds a controlling interest in the bank, has scheduled visits to Britain and Luxembourg over the affair.
The visits weren't officially announced but were confirmed by sources close to the Abu Dhabi emirate.
Britain has asked Sheik Zayed for a cash injection into the huge private bank--which allegedly laundered money for deposed Panamanian leader Manuel A. Noriega--to ensure that customers get their money back, the Bank of England said.
The Serious Fraud Office, a special prosecuting agency of the government, said it decided to investigate BCCI after reviewing a report from the Bank of England.
"We cannot say how long the investigations will take, but the matter will be dealt with as expeditiously as possible," the office said in a statement.
John Maples, economic secretary to Britain's Treasury, said in a statement to the House of Commons that there had been rumors about BCCI for some time but that hard evidence of serious fraud didn't surface until the report became available 10 days ago.
"In this case, it was an extremely sophisticated and complex fraud," Maples said.
The immediate priority for the Bank of England is managing the shutdown of BCCI's operations in an orderly way.
Sheik Zayed, his family and Abu Dhabi authorities hold a 77.4% stake in BCCI, the Bank of England said.
Banking authorities in Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands, the United States, Switzerland, Spain, France, Canada and Britain swooped down on the bank Friday. Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Uruguay joined the action Monday. Operating in 69 countries, the bank had assets estimated at $20 billion.
Robin Leigh-Pemberton, governor of the Bank of England, said Friday that evidence suggested that BCCI was loaning money to clients without expectation of repayment or was faking the existence of loans.
The fraudulent activities were concealed within a secretive internal banking operation inside BCCI, the Financial Times reported Monday.
The newspaper, quoting unidentified investigators, said the "bank within a bank" was used to disguise large losses in securities and foreign-exchange trading.
"A group of top BCCI officials resorted to a paper chase of unrecorded deposits and loans to prevent its auditors and regulators from discovering the holes in its balance sheet," the newspaper said.
An earlier U.S. investigation of BCCI showed that it laundered money for Noriega and that one of its officers once served as Noriega's personal banker. But BCCI was never charged in connection with such activity.
BCCI was founded in the early 1970s by Pakistani banker Agha Hasan Abedi and grew over the years.
The Luxembourg registered-bank was headquartered in London until last year, when it was taken over by Sheik Zayed and moved to Abu Dhabi. It is the private bank of the Abu Dhabi royal family.