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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 November, 2003, 17:41 GMT
Putin denies Yukos licence threat
President Putin
Mr Putin says the Yukos case is about obeying the law
Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticised comments by one of his ministers who suggested Yukos could be stripped of some of its exploration licences.

Earlier on Wednesday, a state newspaper had reported comments by Natural Resources Minister Vitaly Artyukhov saying that the withdrawal of licences was "almost inevitable".

But speaking at a press conference in Italy, Mr Putin said: "I have big doubts about the appropriateness of these steps.

"The state surely does not want to destroy the company," he added.

"I expect the government to refrain from such steps."

Licence threat

Natural Resources Minister Vitaly Artyukhov was quoted in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper as saying there was a good chance Yukos could lose its licences.

"The failure or the partial failure to fulfil licence obligations - almost inevitably in the current situation - will immediately lead to withdrawal of licences for its oilfields," he was quoted as saying.

"The reasoning here is obvious: a company which has had a controlling packet of shares frozen is hardly an appropriate partner for cooperation with the federal licensing body," he added.

This could be a very, very destructive event for Yukos
Timerbulat Karimov, Aton brokerage
The comments came 11 days after Yukos's controlling shareholder Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested and jailed on charges on fraud and tax evasion.

A block of shares that he controls, amounting to more than 40% of the company, was later frozen by Russian authorities.

Timerbulat Karimov, an oil and gas analyst at Moscow-based brokerage Aton, said any revoking of exploration licences could be very damaging for Yukos.

"This could be a very, very destructive event for Yukos. It depends on what oilfields and what actual licences the ministry is talking about," he said.

A Yukos spokesman said he saw no reason for any licences to be withdrawn.

The company's shares fell 6% to $11.85.

Confrontation

Mr Khodorkovsky resigned as chief executive on Monday and was replaced by Russian-born US citizen Simon Kukes.

Many Russians believe the case against Mr Khodorkovsky, who made his fortune through controversial privatisations in the 1990s, is politically motivated.

Yukos shareholdings
He has funded opposition groups, breaking what analysts say was a tacit agreement to stay out of politics in return for avoiding investigation of his financial affairs.

The crackdown on Yukos and its then boss stirred fears of a wider confrontation between the Kremlin and big business.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended his government's treatment of Yukos.

He said the detention of Mr Khodorkovsky was a question of observing the law and denied his government was becoming more authoritarian.

He also said Moscow was not considering renationalising privatised industries.

On Tuesday, a Russian MP called for an investigation into alleged fraud at Sibneft, the oil firm controlled by Roman Abramovich that is being taken over by Yukos.




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