BP withdraws 60 technical staff as Russian dispute continues

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The Independent Online

BP withdrew another 60 staff from its TNK-BP Russian joint venture yesterday in the latest frustrating stage of a dispute with its local partners.

The workers – technical specialists and consultants employed by the oil giant but seconded to TNK-BP – have been prevented from working since March by a series of legal disputes. BP warned its decision to redeploy the consultants would be damaging to TNK-BP but said the attacks on it by AAR, the Russian consortium with which it has an equal share in TNK-BP, had left it no choice.

"TNK will not now have the benefit of the technical expertise and international experience it has enjoyed over the past five years," a BP spokesman said. "This will undoubtedly have an impact and it is something we are doing with great reluctance."

Before March, 148 BP specialists were working with TNK-BP in Russia, but were forced to stay away after questions were raised about the validity of their visas and work permits. While this was resolved, a small TNK-BP shareholder later launched a legal action against TNK-BP, alleging the fees paid by the Russian company to BP itself for the consultants' services amounted to an illegal dividend for the oil giant. A Siberian court granted the shareholder an injunction preventing the workers from returning.

This injunction was lifted last week, but about 90 of the consultants had been redeployed. BP said it was withdrawing the remaining 58 as there was little prospect of the legal case being resolved in the immediate future and their skills were needed elsewhere. BP believes the issue of the consultants is part of a campaign being orchestrated against it by AAR. But Stan Polovets, AAR's chief executive, said there was no evidence the absence of the technicians had made any difference to TNK-BP.

"AAR welcomes foreign talent and considers it critical to the evolution of TNK-BP into a global industry player," he added. "At the same time, we believe it is critical that foreign managers and technical experts who work for TNK-BP are employed by TNK-BP, and not by one of its shareholders."

Meanwhile, TNK-BP's chief executive, Robert Dudley, has faced calls from AAR for his removal.

Separately, BP agreed to settle more claims it was negligent in a 2005 US refinery explosion that killed 15 and injured hundreds more of its workers. A lawsuit, brought by four injured staff, was halfway through trial in Texas when the company reached a confidential settlement. Only 10 more cases remain. BP set aside $2.1bn (£1.05bn) to pay fees and compensation over the Texas City blast.