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Charles Bremner, Paris


French police are investigating a car crash involving a billionaire Russian parliamentarian who was critically injured when his Ferrari slammed into a tree on the Mediterranean seafront in Nice.

Suleyman Kerimov, 40, a far rightwing member of the State Duma from Dagestan, was said by police to have lost control of the car as he sped on Saturday in rain along the Promenade des Anglais, the Riviera?s most celebrated thoroughfare.

The Ferrari Enzo broke in two on impact and burst into flames. An airport fire engine extinguished the blaze after Mr Kerimov extracted himself from the wreckage and rolled in the grass. He was flown by helicopter to hospital in Marseilles where he was today in an induced coma on a respirator. Doctors said that he had suffered burns to 70 percent of his body and they would not be able to assess his prospects of survival for 48 hours.

Mr Kerimov, who is listed by Forbes magazine as the 72nd richest man in the world, was accompanied in the car by Tina Kandelaki, 31, a star personality on Russia?s STS television channel. Ms Kandelaki, who features on men?s magazine covers in her underwear, suffered slight burns and flew back to Moscow on Sunday.

Witnesses told police that the black 12-cylinder Ferrari, which has a top speed of 350 kph (217 mph), had been zig-zagging fast between lines of afternoon traffic. The limit on the busy Promenade is 50 kph (31mph).

Michael Bonnet, Deputy Prosecutor for Nice, said a judicial police investigation was opened "in view of Mr Kerimov?s background". "For the moment we can exclude nothing... but the theory that is favoured is a driving error due to excessive speed on a wet surface," Mr Bonnet told The Times.

Mr Kerimov?s estimated 7.1 billion dollars wealth derives from stakes in Gazprom, Russia?s natural gas export monopoly, and Sberbank, Eastern Europe?s largest bank. He also owns Polymetal, Russia?s biggest silver miner, which plans an initial public share offering in January.

Mr Kerimov leapt into the Russian billionaires?s league in the late 1990s, after he started to borrow aggressively from banks to buy shares in state companies, betting that their value would rise.

A native of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, Mr Kerimov has been an MP for the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, since 1999.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the party leader, said yesterday that he did not suspect foul play. "If there was an explosion, you might think it resembled a murd3r attempt," he Zhirinovsky said. "It was an ordinary car crash, a technical failure, an accident, that?s all."

The MP, who ios deputy head of the State Duma?s committee on physical training, sports, and youth affairs, owns a villa in Antibes. He had just flown into Nice on a private jet and taken delivery of the new Ferrari.

Mr Kerimov, who is married, has a reputation for enjoying an extravagent life-style. Russian media reported last year that he paid one million dollars to fly the pop stars Shakira and ***** to Russia to celebrate his 40th birthday.

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