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Lottie

Mystery over Yukos Auction Winner

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The fate of Russia's Yuganskneftegas - the oil firm sold to a little-known buyer on Sunday - is the subject of frantic speculation in Moscow.

Baikal Finance Group emerged as the auction winner, agreeing to pay 260.75bn roubles (£4.8bn; $9.4bn).

Russia's newspapers claimed that Baikal was a front for gas monopoly Gazprom, which had been expected to win.

The sale has destroyed Yukos, once the owner of Yuganskneftegas, said founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

"Yuganskneftegas has been sold in the best traditions of the 90s," the Interfax news agency quoted Mr Khodorkovsky as saying via his lawyers.

"The authorities have made themselves a wonderful Christmas present - Russia's most efficient oil company has been destroyed."

Gazprom had been expected to win the auction but is thought to have failed to get finance for the deal after a US court injunction barred it from taking part.

Last week, Yukos filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US in a last-ditch attempt to hang on to Yuganskneftegas, which accounts for 60% of its output.

A US judge banned Gazprom from taking part in the auction and barred international banks from providing the firm with cash.

"They screwed up the financing," said Ronald Smith, an analyst at Renaissance Capital in Moscow. "And Gazprom doesn't have this sort of money lying around."

Mystery

Gazprom has denied that it is behind the purchase.

"It is a front for somebody but not necessarily for Gazprom," said Oleg Maximov, an analyst at Troika Dialog in Moscow. "We don't know if this company is linked 100% to Gazprom.

"We tried to find it, but we couldn't and as far as I know, the papers had the same result."

The sale has however bought time for Gazprom to raise the money needed for the purchase, analysts said.

One scenario is that Baikal will not pay when it is supposed to in two weeks time, putting Yuganskneftegas back in the hands of bailiffs and back within the reach of Gazprom.

Yukos is not planning on letting go of its unit without a fight and has threatened legal action against any buyer.

Menatep, Yukos main shareholders' group, also is preparing to file a lawsuit against Baikal, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Yukos claims that it is being punished for the political ambitions of its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now in jail facing separate fraud charges.

It has been hit with more than $27bn in taxes and fines and many observers now say that the break-up of the firm that accounts for 20% of Russia's oil output is inevitable.

Cracks

Yukos already seems to be creaking and its day-to-day operations are under pressure.

Reuters reported on Monday that Yukos had defaulted on two shipments of December crude.

A trader was quoted as saying that "the situation is very uncertain. We don't really know what is going to happen".

During the build-up to Sunday's auction,Yukos had repeatedly warned that it would eventually run out of money and be unable to pay bills after the government froze its bank accounts.

The firm also said that state actions, such as the seizure of Yukos assets and raids on company offices, would compromise its operations.

On top of that, a number of senior executives have left Russia in recent weeks, spooked by the arrest of a number of company employees.

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