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U.S. Court Freezes Yukos Foreign Asset Sales

A U.S. court has issued a temporary injunction blocking Yukos from selling its Mazeikiu Nafta refinery just as the stricken oil major said it was on the verge of clinching a deal with the Lithuanian government on its sale.

A Manhattan bankruptcy court late Thursday issued a 10-day stay on any sale of Yukos foreign assets by Yukos president Steven Theede, who is a U.S. citizen.

The New York court made the ruling on the request of Eduard Rebgun, the supervisory manager appointed last month by a Moscow court to oversee Yukos' bankruptcy. Rebgun said by telephone Friday that he filed for bankruptcy protection to defend creditor interests and to stop Yukos' assets from being stripped.

The move to take the case to a U.S. court raises the stakes in the state's fight for control of the oil major's remaining assets and could pave the way for the Russian government to finally win control of Mazeikiu. Rosneft was behind a bankruptcy case against Yukos that was filed in Moscow in March. The state-owned oil giant has also been one of the oil majors circling the Lithuanian refinery. Yukos' 53.7 percent stake in Mazeikiu, the sole refinery in the Baltic states, is estimated to be worth more than $1 billion.

Yukos said it would respect the court order. "Yukos will comply with the instruction of the court," company spokeswoman Claire Davidson said Friday. "That means any discussion related to the sale of Mazeikiu must be put on hold."

Yukos had been in the final stages of talks to sell its shares in the refinery to Lithuania. On March 29, a Russian court imposed a ban on the sale of Yukos assets, but Yukos continued negotiations. Yukos insisted any transaction involving Mazeikiu was outside the jurisdiction of Russian law because the refinery is owned by Yukos International UK, a Dutch-based subsidiary.

The Lithuanian government had until now been proceeding with negotiations on this basis. Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas said Friday that his government was ready to buy the refinery at any moment.

Lithuania owns a 41 percent stake in Mazeikiu and is looking to sell a majority stake to a new strategic investor. Until now, Kazakhstan's KazMunaiGaz had been leading the race, two people familiar with the situation said.

A former senior manager at Yukos said the Russian government now ran the risk of having the details of its politically tinged legal campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky's oil major examined by a U.S. court -- if the case ever got beyond the stage of temporary injunction.

"There is a serious risk this could backfire," said former Yukos first vice president Alexander Temerko, who has been a close ally of Khodorkovsky for nearly 20 years. "This sets a precedent that could lead to very serious developments that are not in the interests of the Russian Federation."

Once the nation's biggest oil major, Yukos has been smashed by more than $30 billion in back tax claims in a relentless legal onslaught that has led to greater state dominance over the strategic oil sector. Bankruptcy proceedings against the struggling firm are widely seen as the last chapter of the Kremlin-orchestrated campaign against the firm.

The filing in the United States looked like a desperate attempt by the government to win control over Mazeikiu, Temerko said by telephone Friday. "Rosneft already controls the rest of Yukos through the prosecutor general. Mazeikiu was the only asset out of their reach."

If Yukos succeeds in selling its Mazeikiu stake, more than $1 billion in proceeds will go toward paying off creditor claims. Under a Dutch court ruling, the proceeds would go toward paying off GML Ltd., Yukos' majority shareholder, and the $483 million outstanding on a $1 billion loan to a group of Western banks that the Russian bankruptcy filing was originally based on. Rosneft later took over the bankruptcy case and the debt from the banks.

By selling Mazeikiu in time, Yukos could avert the company's liquidation. But if Rebgun is able to win an extension of the asset sale freeze until June 27 -- the day a Russian court is due to decide whether to liquidate Yukos -- the firm's management will lose this chance.

Tim Osborne, managing director of GML Ltd., said Rebgun may have decided to take the case to the United States rather than to the Netherlands, where the Mazeikiu assets are held, because previous attempts to stay the sale in Dutch courts had failed.

Rosneft last year filed suit with a Dutch court to block the sale of Mazeikiu over $2.1 billion it claimed Yukos owed to Yugansk. Yugansk was acquired by Rosneft in a forced auction in December 2004. The Dutch court initially issued a temporary stay but later rejected Rosneft's case.

Rebgun said he had made the filing in the United States because Theede was a U.S. citizen. "It's likely that he's going to take the decision of a U.S. court more seriously," Rebgun said.

He rejected Theede's argument that Russian courts had no say over Mazeikiu, noting that the directors of Yukos International were the same executives running Yukos. Yukos is clearly trying to strip assets, he said.

Osborne said Rebgun's filing showed that the government had no interest in seeing Yukos pay off its creditors. Rebgun is nothing more than a lackey for the Kremlin and for Rosneft, and is doing whatever they tell him to do to ensure that Yukos does not survive, he said.

(The Moscow Times 17.iv.06)

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