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Raid on Yukos shareholder, cloud on big dream

Moscow, Dec. 9 (Reuters): Tax officials today searched the Moscow headquarters of a bank owned by Menatep, the main shareholder in embattled oil firm Yukos, a spokesman for Menatep SPb bank said.

“I do not know who these people are. They produced a warrant issued by prosecutors to tax police and are now searching the premises,” the spokesman said.

In a separate development, Yukos said today it was unaware its merger with Sibneft was off, despite reports on Radio Ekho Moskvy in which sources close to the firms said it had been scrapped. “The core shareholders of Yukos have not informed the company’s management that the deal with Sibneft is cancelled,” Yukos said. Analysts said the reported demise of the merger between the two oil companies would, if confirmed, leave embattled Yukos even more exposed to judicial harassment by the authorities.

It would also shatter the dream of Yukos’ main shareholder, jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of creating Russia’s largest oil group to challenge western oil corporations.

The radio report quoted sources close to talks in London as saying the two sides had agreed that Yukos and Sibneft, which almost completed a merger before smaller partner Sibneft called a halt to it 11 days ago, could now go their separate ways. “The terms, including financial terms, of the divorce will be announced shortly,” the radio quoted an unnamed source as saying.

Yukos shareholder Leonid Nevzlin, in Israel after fleeing Russia to escape arrest, was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying talks between the two sides were still on.“I have no information about the severing of this deal. This is unofficial information and I do not wish to discuss it,” said Nevzlin.

Yuri Kotler, a spokesman for holding company Menatep through which Khodorkovksy and his allies control a 44 per cent stake in Yukos, said he could neither confirm nor deny the report.

The report came just two days after parties close to President Vladimir Putin, some of them calling for Russia’s rich business oligarchs to be cut down to size, won a resounding victory in parliamentary elections. The merger was undermined by a judicial assault, believed to have been orchestrated by the Kremlin, on the politically ambitious Khodorkovsky.

Traders and analysts said they feared judicial attacks on Yukos would now be stepped up once the company was cut loose from Sibneft, whose main shareholder Roman Abramovich is known to enjoy good relations with the Kremlin.

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