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Chevron interested in acquiring Yukos assets

/ Source: The Associated Press

Chevron Corp. has expressed interest in acquiring assets of OAO Yukos, a bankruptcy official said Friday, raising the prospect of a U.S. company participating in the liquidation of a business whose downfall rattled investor confidence in Russia.

Nikolai Lashkevich, a spokesman for Yukos bankruptcy supervisor Eduard Rebgun, told The Associated Press that several international companies had inquired about participating in any auction or sale of the assets of Yukos, which was once Russia's largest oil producer.

"The receiver's office has received letters expressing interest in acquiring certain Yukos assets from a number of large international companies, including from the U.S. company Chevron," Lashkevich said.

Irena Rybalchenko, a spokeswoman for Chevron in Moscow, refused to comment on the statement. Chevron, based in San Ramon, Calif., is the second-biggest U.S. oil company after Exxon Mobil Corp.

A day earlier, Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom said major U.S. energy companies were interested in acquiring assets of Yukos, which was forced into bankruptcy by government tax claims alongside the criminal prosecution of its founder.

Former Yukos CEO and major shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence on fraud and tax evasion charges, and his trial was widely seen a Kremlin-driven punishment for his challenges of President Vladimir Putin and funding of opposition political parties.

Gazprom did not specify which companies were interested in Yukos.

The remaining assets of Yukos include units that produce some 470,000 barrels per day as well as two refineries. The bankruptcy supervisor is readying the company for a series of auctions _ analysts expect them to be dominated by Gazprom and OAO Rosneft, which is also state-controlled and close to the Kremlin.

Rosneft acquired Yukos' biggest production unit after its disputed auction against back tax bills in 2004, in what observers said marked the start of a drive by the state under Putin to expand its role in the strategically important energy sector.

Before his arrest in October 2003, Khodorkovsky was thought to have further angered Putin by negotiating with both Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron over the sale of a stake in Yukos, then the country's biggest oil producer.

Were U.S. companies to participate in the liquidation of Yukos, it would mark a striking change in attitude toward the events surrounding Yukos' partial nationalization and Khodorkovsky's prosecution. The U.S. administration and industry officials have criticized the legal campaign, saying it raised questions about the rule of law and the sanctity of property rights in Russia.

Earlier Friday, Rebgun told AP that he was unaware of Chevron's interest, but suggested that many foreign oil companies were keen to participate in the auctions.

"I think a lot of companies will be interested in Yukos' assets," he said.

Italian energy companies Eni SPA and Enel SPA have also applied for permission to bid for Yukos assets along with their Russian partner ESN Group, Dow Jones Newswires reported. ESN, which has worked closely in the past with Gazprom, has said that the companies are interested primarily in Yukos' natural gas assets.

Prosecutors on Monday filed new money-laundering charges against Khodorkovsky and his business partner in what their defense lawyers said was a new effort to keep the tycoon behind bars beyond next year's presidential elections.

Prosecutors alleged in a statement that Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev stole oil worth more than $32 billion from OAO Yukos' subsidiaries between 1998-2003.

The oil was illegally acquired under the guise of "well fluid" and subsequently sold on via intermediary firms for three to four times more, the statement said. The firms were registered both in Russia and outside to "implement the scheme for selling stolen oil and leaving a part of the proceeds overseas," prosecutors said.

Prosecutors also alleged that Khodorkovsky organized the theft of shares belonging to the state in the Eastern Oil Co.