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Tue, Dec 21, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Mysterious firm buys Yukos unit

AUCTION Russian officials said they couldn't reveal who was behind Baikal Finance Group, but some believe the company is connected to the state

THE GUARDIAN , MOSCOW

The Yukos saga took another twist on Sunday when an unknown company won the controversial auction for the Russian oil business' main production unit in a move seen as sidestepping a US court order barring the sale to state-controlled Gazprom.

Baikal, named after a huge freshwater lake in Siberia, bid 261 billion roubles (US$9.36 billion) for Yuganskneftegaz, said the sale's organizer, the Federal Property Fund.

The sale was meant to mark the end of a bruising political battle between Yukos and the Russian government, spelling the comp-any's end as the nation's biggest oil firm and sealing its takeover by the state. But the mystery over the new owners signalled possible new scandals ahead.

Yury Petrov, the acting head of the Federal Property Fund, said he could not say who was behind Baikal.

"It is just as much as a surprise for us as it is for you."

State Connections?

Many believe, however, that Baikal Finance Group is connected to the state or Gazprom itself and could later be sold to Gazprom directly. Russian news agency ITAR Tass reported that the company's registered address in the Moscow region town of Tver was the same as a subsidiary of Gazprom.

The sale came after a Houston court last Thursday ruled in favor of Yukos' emergency petition to stay the sale, claiming it would irreparably damage the group.US bankruptcy judge Letitia Clark issued a restraining order against Gazprom participating in the auction, as well as against foreign banks planning to finance the sale to the gas giant with a Euros 10 billion (US$13.35 billion) loan.

In the event, Gazprom's oil arm, Gazpromneft, took part in the sale but did not bid, and the banks planning to finance it, including Deutsche Bank, said they were pulling out of the deal because of the potential legal consequences.

Uncertainties

Analysts said the sale would cause more investor concern.

"The whole situation is very unsatisfactory and far from resolved," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank. "It still creates all these uncertainties as to ownership and is bound to make investors nervous. The big risk is that this has been done by a bunch of people in the Kremlin who could sell it on for a huge profit, pocketing the difference," he said.

Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin said that whoever bought it had "bought a US$9 billion headache."

Yukos and Group Menatep, the company's core shareholder, have vowed to pursue any buyer of the unit through international courts.

After the auction, officials refused to disclose the names of the officials representing Baikal at the auction or say where Baikal's financing was coming from.

If Baikal fails to pay within 14 days, the shares in Yugansk would then be transferred to the state, justice ministry official Alexander Buksmann said.

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