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Yukos' Shares in Sibneft Frozen

A Moscow court again froze Yukos' 34.5 percent stake in Sibneft last week, the embattled oil major said Wednesday.

"It has been arrested twice before regarding investigations of tax evasion for 2000 and 2001. And those arrests have not been lifted yet," Yukos spokesman Alexander Shadrin said.

In the notice served to the company, however, Yukos was told that the latest arrest is part of a criminal investigation, Shadrin said.

The arrest could mean that the stake in Sibneft - estimated to be worth $6 billion - could be seized by the state if prosecutors prove that it was initially acquired with funds earned through criminal means, Vedomosti reported Wednesday, citing an unnamed official familiar with the case.

By the end of 2003, Yukos had gained control of some 92 percent of Sibneft as part of a now-defunct merger between the two oil giants.

The merger, which has yet to be fully reversed following Yukos' change in fortunes, was completed in several stages, in which Yukos acquired different chunks for cash or share-swap schemes.

The 34.5 percent stake was bought for $3 billion in cash and Yukos treasury stock.

Following the arrest of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky last October, the merger began to crumble.

Khodorkovsky has since been imprisoned on tax evasion and fraud charges, while Yukos has been besieged by back tax claims for more than $18 billion for 2000, 2001 and 2002.

The companies have been trying to negotiate a divorce settlement, and Yukos has already canceled a share issue for a 57.5 percent stake in Sibneft. But even if an agreement on the remaining stake is found, nothing can be done until the arrested shares are unfrozen.

Sibneft was not commenting on the most recent arrest of shares, spokesman John Mann said Wednesday. Sibneft directors Tuesday agreed to hold the company's annual shareholders meeting on Dec. 27.

Yukos shares closed down 4.76 percent on the RTS, after a day of gains on Tuesday fueled by speculation that the oil major's core shareholder, Group Menatep, would sell its 61 percent stake to save the company from ruin.

The sheer size of the tax claim could force the company into technical bank-ruptcy because of the negative ratio between the company's value and the size of its tax debt.

The company could cough up enough cash to cover the entire claim in the period of a year, provided the state provides such an opportunity and if the bill itself does not grow anymore, Yukos CEO Steven Theede said in an interview published by Expert magazine Wednesday.

With nearly all its accounts arrested, it was not clear how Yukos would come up with more than $14 billion in outstanding back taxes and penalties.

(The St. Petersburg Times 12.xi.04)

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