Kremlin raises stakes with raid on oil giant

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The Independent Online

The Kremlin's battle with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, and Yukos, its largest private oil company, intensified dramatically yesterday when government officials seized control of the firm's Moscow headquarters.

Yukos, formerly run by Mr Khodorkovsky, who is standing trial for fraud and embezzlement, appeared to be engulfed in fear and panic. Sources said that between 50 and 60 officials from the Ministry of the Interior turned up at the firm's glass-panelled headquarters in south-central Moscow with a warrant to enter the premises. The officials, who were in plain clothes and did not appear to be armed, swamped the building and sealed the doors.

"It's a raid," a source close to the firm told The Independent on Sunday, claiming the officials had gone from office to office removing computer servers vital for production. Yukos, with a staff of 100,000, is Russia's largest domestic oil producer. Its output of 1.72 million barrels a day is a fifth of the national total, but without its servers, said the company, production could stop almost at once. There was also concern that the 20-storey building, where 3,000 people normally work, might remain sealed tomorrow, making it difficult to resume operations.

The Interfax news agency reported that the search ended after the officers removed several boxes of documents. But a company spokesman, Hugo Erikssen, said it was not clear what was taken away. No Yukos officials were in the building during the raid, and he could not confirm what had happened to the computer servers. "Why they had to come on a weekend ... that's a question we'd like to know," said Mr Eriksson.

Officials from the general prosecutor's office also appeared to be involved in the raid and signalled that the firm may be the subject of a new probe. "The investigative actions are being undertaken as part of a criminal case into fraud and tax evasion by entities controlled by Yukos," a spokesman told Interfax.

The move came a day after a Moscow court refused to lift an asset freeze on Yukos, which is facing two enormous tax bills totalling $3.4bn (£1.85bn). On Thursday the firm was given five days to pay one of the bills, but the asset freeze means it cannot sell property to raise the cash.

Yukos has pledged to pay everything it owes, but has pleaded - apparently in vain - to be allowed to stagger payments. Saddled with two multibillion-dollar loans and bracing itself for more crippling back tax bills, the firm now appears close to bankruptcy, something that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has said he would not like to see.

Russian officials appear unwilling, however, to show the firm any quarter and many observers believe Yukos is being persecuted for the perceived sins of its fabulously wealthy former chief executive and principal shareholder.

The tax inspectorate's claims, and the fraud and embezzlement charges against Mr Khodorkovsky, are, it is claimed, merely a crude device to punish the oligarch for his unsanctioned forays into anti-Kremlin politics. But Mr Putin denies the matter is political. He says it is about clamping down on sleazy business practices and playing by the rules, a mantra that has gone down well in a country where many people resent the huge wealth accrued by the likes of Mr Khodorkovsky in the anarchic post-Soviet meltdown.

According to Forbes magazine Mr Khodorkovsky is worth $15bn, much of it tied up in Yukos shares which are likely to plunge when markets reopen tomorrow.