Russian threat to revoke Yukos oilfield licences

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The Independent Online

The Russian oil giant Yukos faced fresh trouble yesterday when the Government said it could lose some of its prospecting licences for major Siberian oilfields and was unlikely to win any more so long as a large proportion of the company's shares remained frozen.

Vitaly Artyukhov, the resources minister, made the comments in an interview with Russian newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta, which caused Yukos shares to fall again, two days after the appointment of a new chief executive, Simon Kukes, had seemed to reassure the markets.

Confidence in Yukos was undermined further with the announcement by the debt rating agency Moody's that it was cutting its outlook stance on Yukos and also on the smaller company, Sibneft, that it is in the process of buying. Moody's left unchanged its assessment of Russia, which it upgraded to investment status last month.

But RTS, the main Russian stock market, also followed Yukos down. The warning from Mr Artyukhov came as Vladimir Putin was in Rome for a European Union-Russia summit. Mr Putin rejected the withdrawal of licences as an additional sanction against Yukos, casting further doubt on the unity of his administration.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the company's former chief executive who was seized 10 days ago, is now in a Moscow prison awaiting trial on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He resigned earlier this week. Some of the charges relate to alleged irregularities committed by him during the chaotic privatisations of the mid-Nineties.

This has raised fears that the government might review all Russia's natural resources privatisations. Mr Putin has insisted the pursuit of Yukos is not intended to set any precedent.

The resources minister appeared to contradict this. "The failure or the partial failure to fulfil licence obligations, which is almost inevitable in the current situation, will immediately lead to withdrawal of licences for its oilfields," he said.

Vladimir Yudin, the deputy chairman of the parliament's economic and entrepreneurship committee, called for the freeze on Yukos's shares to be extended to those of Sibneft. He claimed that its directors had exploited the murky byways of privatisation to defraud the Russian government of $6bn (£3.6bn). Sibneft is headed by Roman Abramovich, who now owns Chelsea Football Club.

Mr Khodorkovsky has crticised the resources ministry over the past year, saying the licensing system was holding back his plans to boost output.