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Russian banks bid for Yukos gas stake

/ Source: The Associated Press

A group of Russian investment banks offered oil giant Yukos $450 million for its stake in a multinational gas joint venture Friday, a proposal that could help the company raise money to pay off a crippling back taxes bill.

The offer by the Alfa Services group follows earlier suggestions from Yukos that it would sell its stake in Rospan International. Yukos faces a $3.4 billion back taxes bill that it says could force the company into bankruptcy.

The tax claims surrounding Russia’s largest oil producer — along with the trial of former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky — are part of a web of actions by the Russian state that many observers say are part of a campaign to punish the billionaire for his growing clout. Some say they may be aimed at putting at least part of Yukos in Kremlin-friendly hands.

In a statement carried by the Interfax news agency, Alfa Services proposed buying Yukos’ 56 percent stake in Rospan, a joint venture with Anglo-Russian oil company TNK-BP. TNK-BP earlier said it was willing to buy out Yukos’ stake in Rospan for $357 million.

Alfa Services, which said it was already owed $35 million by Rospan International, said it would pay the money from the sale directly to bailiffs trying to collect the back taxes.

The group also offered to buy two of Yukos’ smaller gas subsidiaries.

Alfa Services has no relation to Alfa Group, which co-owns TNK-BP, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

Yukos has said it does not have enough ready cash to pay its tax bill, and a court order prevents it from selling assets to raise cash. The company has warned that the bill could drive it into bankruptcy unless other payment arrangements can be made.

The company also says it has made repeated requests to the government to spread out payments, but there has been no public response from the government.

Court officials in Moscow, meanwhile, adjourned Khodorkovsky’s forgery, fraud and tax evasion trial until Thursday. The tycoon has been jailed since October when he was arrested at gunpoint at a Siberian airport.

Crude oil futures briefly rose to new heights in trading Friday in New York and London before falling back, as the uncertainty surrounding Yukos, possible disruptions in supplies from the Middle East and fears of terrorism rattled traders.