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Russian billionaire Tsvetkov sells $248 mln of Lukoil stock

Russian billionaire and OAO Lukoil board member Nikolai Tsvetkov sold $248 mln of shares in Russia's largest oil producer last week, as CEO Vagit Alekperov and his family bought stock.

Tsevtkov's OAO Uralsib Bank sold 2.44 million shares for 5.3 billion rubles ($202 million) on February 9 and British Virgin Islands-based Lasmo Resources Ltd. sold 577,429 shares for $45.9 million on February 12, Lukoil said in a statement distributed via the Regulatory News Service today. The shares are equal to less than 0.4% of outstanding shares. Lukoil and OAO Uralsib Financial Corp., of which Tsvetkov is president and an owner, have been unwinding their cross ownership as the bank expands and prepares to offer shares to investors, said Eric Kraus, managing director of Moscow-based Russia Nikitsky Fund. „Lukoil is moving Tsvetkov out of its ownership structure, and Tsvetkov is concentrating on developing his banking business,” said Kraus, who used to be head of research at Tsvetkov's Nikoil investment bank, which was later merged into the Uralsib group. Lukoil management used Nikoil to hold its stock to defend against any takeover attempts, Kraus said. Kraus was fired from Nikoil in 2002, three months after being quoted in a Moscow newspaper as making disparaging remarks about OAO Sibneft, an oil producer then owned by billionaire Roman Abramovich and later acquired by state-run OAO Gazprom.

Tsvetkov declined to comment on his reasons for selling the shares, said his spokesman Alexander Vikhrov. Alexei Kondratyev, director of investor relations at Uralsib Bank, declined to comment on any potential share sale by the bank. Alekperov is buying Tsvetkov's shares in Lukoil and selling his shares in Uralsib, Vedomosti said yesterday, citing an unidentified investment banker working with Lukoil. Alekperov told Vedomosti in an interview in August that he held a 13% stake in Lukoil and 7% in Uralsib Hepworth Technologies SA, a company affiliated with Alekperov, bought the same amount of shares in Lukoil that Lasmo sold on the same day and for the same price, according to information from a Lukoil statement on February 13. Lukoil spokesman Vladimir Semakov declined to confirm or deny a link between the two transactions. Uralsib, in a transaction related to Alekperov, sold 2.5 million shares for 5.52 billion rubles, while Alekperov, his wife, son and an affiliated company bought a combined 4.35 million shares for about $356 million, including Hepworth's purchase, Lukoil said on February 13.

Fitch Ratings in November upgraded Uralsib Bank's credit rating to B+,  four levels below investment grade, while saying the bank's „large” strategic stake in Lukoil could increase the volatility of earnings and equity. Uralsib held 7.12% of Lukoil's shares in nominal ownership as of February 1, down from 8.79% as of January 1, 2006, according to Lukoil's Web site. Alekperov and Lukoil vice president Leonid Fedun, who also bought company shares this month, are seeking Kremlin approval to swap stock for shares in ConocoPhillips, the third-largest US oil producer, Vedomosti newspaper said yesterday, citing three unidentified officials. „That is the newspaper's version,” Lukoil's Semakov said today, declining to comment further on the report. The executives earlier said they would increase their stakes, reflecting their faith in the company, he said. ConocoPhillips last year raised its stake in Lukoil to 20%, the maximum it's allowed to own under an agreement between the two companies. (Bloomberg)