updated 2/16/2004 10:58:47 AM ET 2004-02-16T15:58:47

A group of shareholders that control Russia's largest oil company, Yukos, have offered their stock to the government in exchange for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Yukos' former chief.

Leonid Nevzlin said that he and other core shareholders of Group Menatep — a holding company — had offered to turn over their stake in Yukos to the government if it agrees to let Khodorkovsky out of jail.

"Life and liberty are more valuable than shares," said Nevzlin, believed to own 3.5 percent of Yukos through Menatep, told Dow Jones Newswires.

Khodorkovsky, who resigned as Yukos chief shortly after his Oct. 25 arrest on fraud and tax evasion charges, has remained in custody awaiting trial. Courts have repeatedly dismissed petitions by lawyers of Khodorkovsky to free him on bail, and his supporters have alleged his arrest was politically motivated.

Group Menatep is believed to own 44 percent of Yukos. It is not clear how much stock individual members of the group own. Nevzlin said the offer applied to shares in Yukos and other companies held both directly and indirectly by the Group Menatep partners.

Nevzlin said the offer was conditional on Khodorkovsky and another shareholder, Platon Lebedev, first being released. After their release, Nevzlin and the other shareholders will surrender their shares, he said.

He declined to say what specific government officials had been approached about the offer. He did, however, add that the shareholders were willing to forfeit all of Group Menatep in addition to just the Yukos shares to ensure Khodorkovsky's and Lebedev's freedom.

The Interfax news agency quoted Nevzlin as saying the decision to make the offer was made a week ago but there had been no response from the government.

Khodorkovsky's arrest and the ensuing freezing of about 40 percent of the Yukos stock by prosecutors have marked a peak in the long-running official investigation, which is widely seen as a Kremlin-orchestrated attempt to curb Khodorkovsky's clout.

President Vladimir Putin has denied any political undertones to the inquiry and sought to present it as part of the government's anti-corruption efforts.

Nevzlin is living in self-imposed exile in Israel, along with fellow Menatep shareholder Vladimir Dubov. All of Menatep's shareholders face criminal charges, mainly relating to alleged fraud and tax evasion.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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