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Police Surround Yukos Headquarters

More than 40 plainclothes officers raided Yukos' headquarters and seized stacks of documents and hard drives from the computers of senior executives Saturday in a surprise show of force that came as a vicious, yearlong standoff between Yukos' owners and the government appeared to hurtle toward a decisive phase. About 20 officers in combat fatigues from the OMON special forces cordoned off Yukos' towering downtown office block while a team of investigators from the Prosecutor General's Office combed the building for more than eight hours. Yanking up the pressure even further, six tax officials carrying guns delivered a new $3.4 billion tax claim for 2001 to Yukos CEO Steven Theede on Friday, a Yukos employee said.

A new claim on top of a $3.4 billion tax bill for 2000 would leave the oil firm with a crushing $6.7 billion debt to the government. It also may be landed with claims for 2002 and 2003. A Federal Tax Service spokeswoman on Friday would not confirm or deny that the 2001 claim had been delivered.

The government could start seizing assets from the nation's biggest oil exporter as soon as Wednesday, after court marshals on Thursday gave it five days' notice to voluntarily pay the $3.4 billion bill for 2000. Yukos says it does not have sufficient funds. A freeze on Yukos bank accounts imposed by the marshals the same day could lead to a shutdown in production and a default on $2.6 billion in international loans, the company says.

A source with close knowledge of Yukos' international loan agreements said the company's situation was so dire that theoretically the international consortium of banks backing the $2.6 billion in loans could already announce default, a call that would almost certainly lead to bankruptcy. To some insiders, the bankruptcy of what had been the nation's largest listed company now seems an inevitable conclusion of a state campaign that has escalated since the arrest of core shareholder Platon Lebedev a year ago Friday to an attack of such scale that it is even causing global oil prices to quiver. Insiders say the campaign aimed at forcing Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky to give up his company and his political ambitions has snowballed to gain a life of its own, partly because of Khodorkovsky's and the Kremlin's refusal to back down. Despite a management proposal for Khodorkovsky and the other core Yukos shareholders who make up Group Menatep to sell off their shares to raise money to pay off tax bills, Khodorkovsky has given no indication that he is ready to do so.

Khodorkovsky will probably make an announcement about the standoff on Tuesday or Wednesday from his jail cell in Matrosskaya Tishina, where he has been incarcerated since he was arrested on charges of fraud and tax evasion in October, his lawyer Anton Drel said by telephone Friday.

Investors bailed out of Yukos as fast as they could Friday following news that its bank accounts had been frozen and that it was facing the new tax claim for 2001. Shares nosedived nearly 17 percent to close at $6.65. In the year since Lebedev was arrested, Yukos has lost about $15 billion in value. The share drop was exacerbated further Friday when international credit rating agency Standard and Poor's lowered its long-term rating of Yukos another grade to CC, bringing it just two notches above default.

An industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin recently contacted Yukos' international creditors to urge them not to announce a default on their loans of $2.6 billion. Gerashchenko backed up that claim Friday, telling reporters that Kudrin phoned the banks 10 days ago to assure them the company would not be bankrupted. But Kudrin's press secretary Gennady Yezhov said the claim was false, Interfax reported. Hopes for Yukos reaching a settlement look bleak. Gerashchenko said attempts to contact the Kremlin and the government have all failed so far. He said he tried to phone Kremlin chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Kudrin on Thursday, but none returned his calls.

More bad news came the company's way Friday when a Moscow court upheld a court order freezing Yukos' assets, which means the company cannot independently decide which assets to sell off to pay its debts. Instead, court marshals will control the process. Gerashchenko on Friday said a decision by court marshals a day earlier to reject an offer of the company's 35 percent stake in Sibneft as collateral for the 2000 tax claim was a "provocation." He said their decision to freeze the company's bank accounts instead could force Yukos to halt production because it would not be able to make payments for daily operations. Analysts said Friday, however, that a production shutdown looked unlikely, at least in the immediate future.

Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin confirmed Sunday that the company's production units had not yet been affected by the account freeze, but he warned their activities could be affected in the future. Prosecutors said Saturday that the raid had been carried out as part of a reopened criminal case into possible tax evasion at a key Yukos production subsidiary, Samaraneftegaz. Shadrin, however, said Sunday that documents seized during the raid were completely unrelated. He said officers had also seized computer hard drives from offices belonging to deputy Yukos CEO Yury Beilin, former Yukos production chief Mikhail Brudno, as well as other senior executives.

(The Moscow Times 05.vii.04)

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