The Serious Fraud Office has launched a criminal probe into Eurasian Natural Resources Corp, ratcheting up scrutiny of the controversy-dogged FTSE-100 miner.

The announcement from the SFO came days after founding shareholders in the Kazakh-based miner said they were weighing up a bid to take the company private.

People familiar with the investigation told the Financial Times that the agency had first begun an official probe into ENRC before its potential restructuring was announced last week.

The company had already been engaged in two internal investigations into assets in Kazakhstan and Africa, related to whistleblower allegations of fraud.

An official criminal probe by the SFO was signalled as a possibility when it previously sent a demand for documents to the law firm Dechert, appointed to investigate those assets and then report findings to the SFO. Its report on Kazakhstan had already been handed to the SFO.

However, Dechert was abruptly replaced in late March just weeks before it was due to turn over its Africa report. The SFO then served it with a so-called Section 2a notice, which allows the agency to demand documents at a pre-investigation stage when it suspects overseas bribery.

The Dechert replacement was part of a big turnover of the company’s advisers and many of its board members and senior employees, including Alex Gaft, a senior corporate investigator who was examining conduct at the group’s large iron ore division.

Those departures culminated in the resignation of Mehmet Dalman, chairman, on Tuesday, because of unresolved corporate governance concerns.

ENRC has been the subject of long-running corporate governance concerns, which have fuelled a debate over whether the UK should have tougher listing requirements.

ENRC is controlled by three Central Asian oligarchs, Kazakhmys, another London-listed miner, and the government of Kazakhstan.

Last Friday, the oligarch Alexander Mashkevich said he was considering buying out the 18 per cent free float in ENRC, in a consortium with the Kazakh government and two other founding shareholders, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov.

Some legal experts said a take-private deal could hinder an SFO investigation if no assets, evidence or witnesses remained in the UK. However, ENRC said it was “committed to a full and transparent investigation of its procedures and conduct”.

The SFO said “the focus of the investigation will be allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption relating to the activities of the company or its subsidiaries in Kazakhstan and Africa,” and declined to comment further.

Dechert declined to comment.

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