Arrest warrant issued for India billionaire Mallya

An Indian court filed an arrest warrant Friday for Vijay Mallya, a Formula One tycoon nicknamed the "King of Good Times", over allegations that cheques written by his troubled airline had bounced.

Vijay Mallya, chairman and CEO of India's debt-ridden Kingfisher Airlines, pictured in Mumbai in 2011. A local court in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad on Friday issued an arrest warrant for billionaire Mallya, reports said. The warrant was issued against Mallya, who also owns a F1 team, over Kingfisher cheques to the operator of Hyderabad International Airport that bounced, reports said.

The non-bailable warrant was issued in the local sessions court in the southern city of Hyderabad against Mallya and four other executives in a dramatic escalation of the crisis facing his cash-strapped Kingfisher Airlines.

Mallya's whereabouts were not immediately known although a member of his entourage said he was out of the country.

The warrant was issued as the airline announced it was extending its shutdown until October 20 due to a dispute with striking staff over wages that have not been paid for seven months. Kingfisher has been grounded for nearly two weeks.

"At this time, the airline is hopeful of resuming operations starting October 21st," Kingfisher said in a statement late Friday.

The arrest warrant for Mallya was triggered after a complaint was lodged before the court by GHIAL, the operator of Hyderabad airport, over non-payment of bills.

"The cases were listed today for the airline to appear in the court," said a GHIAL spokesman.

"Since they failed to appear before the magistrate, the court has ordered issuance of NBW (non-bailable warrants) against Kingfisher Airlines (KFA), Vijay Mallya and four other KFA officials," the spokesman added in a statement to AFP.

Kingfisher's lawyers had urged the court not to issue the warrants but their request was dismissed by Judge Kedara Chary, said a report from inside the courtroom by the Press Trust of Indian news agency.

The cheques for 105 million rupees (around $2 million) were to settle user fees at the airport for services such as the parking of jets and landing charges.

Mallya is a cigar-puffing tycoon who inherited his father's beer business and built it into an empire spanning fertilizers, top European alcohol brands, Formula One team Force India and a cricket club, Royal Challengers Bangalore.

But the 56-year-old, who is also an independent member of parliament, has come unstuck with Kingfisher Airlines, which was launched in 2005 but has never made a profit.

The debt-ridden airline, named after Mallya's biggest beer brand, owes billions of dollars in taxes, airport fees and to staff who have not been paid since April.

With its fleet on the ground, it faces the prospect of having its licence cancelled.

Negotiations on persuading staff to return to work foundered once again on Friday and the fleet will therefore remain grounded until at least October 20, according to the Press Trust of India.

Last week, the wife of an airline technician committed suicide, reportedly because of the financial stress caused by her husband's unpaid wages, leading to renewed scrutiny of Mallya's lavish lifestyle.

Mallya owns a yacht, property across the world and a fleet of vintages cars.

But his empire is facing an increasing financial crunch.

His flagship United Breweries (UB), India's biggest brewer, is in talks to sell a stake of the profitable liquor empire to Diageo, the world's largest distiller, which analysts say could raise $800 million.

Hyderabad's police chief Anurag Sharma told AFP his department had not yet received the arrest warrant for Mallya.

Once we receive it, "we will see what exactly is the instructions", commissioner Sharma said.

There was no immediate comment from Mallya on the latest developments.

Calls by AFP to Kingfisher executives' mobile telephones were not answered on Friday but a person who answered the phone at the tycoon's home in New Delhi said he was out of the country.

Kingfisher Airlines was India's second-largest airline until a year ago but now it has a market share of just 3.2 percent, the smallest of the country's carriers.

A report by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, a Sydney-based consultancy, says Kingfisher's debts total $2.49 billion including bank debts of $1.1 billion, and it had accumulated losses of $1.9 billion.

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