Police have refused to intervene in the continued armed stand-off over the Kristall vodka factory in Moscow, which produces the world's leading vodka Stolichanaya.

Over the weekend two armed gangs headed by rival board members of the distillery entered the factory within 24 hours of each other, in an attempt to seize control of the company.

Yesterday, acting director Vladimir Svirsky appealed to the police for assistance in regaining control of the plant. But although Police officers have been dispatched to the site they said they would only ensure the dispute did not get out of hand.

The battle for the distillery, part of a prolonged war for Russia's vodka industry, began last Friday when armed tax police arrived at the distillery to seize documents related to a tax bill for £2.5m.

Within hours of the raid, Alexsandr Romanov, a director of the factory, stormed into the distillery with the use of 20 camouflaged men armed with machine guns, according to local journalists. Romanov, who is now in control of over half the premises, claimed he was re-establishing state-ownership of the factory.

On Saturday, Romanov's rival Svirsky took up position at the other end of the distillery with his own armed guards.

The situation is the culmination of months of legal wranglings over who controls the vodka producer. The Kremlin announced earlier this year plans to up a state-run alcohol conglomerate, Rosspirtprom, to maximise tax revenue. Kristall is 51% state owned and one of the largest vodka producers in the country. It is therefore a prime candidate for Rasspirtprom.

But the attempts to take control of the vodka industry have met fierce opposition from the "alcohol mafia".

In May the Kristall directors fired their then head director Yuri Yermilov and appointed Romanov. Backed by accusations that Yermilov had only been dismissed because of his opposition to Rosspirtprom, this prompted open revolt among the factories workers.

The Russian court system then ruled that Romanov's appointment was invalid and cleared the way for Svirsky to take the reins.

Romanov on Monday stoutly defended his right to run Kristall and gave no indication he might back down. "I have documents that prove my legitimacy," Romanov said on NTV television.

While the armed takeover at Kristall is not common, it is far from unique. In recent months, the country has been shaken by a series of struggles at factories across the nation, commented the Moscow Times.

Chris Brook-Carter