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Yukos auction date set for March - extended

Five Russian oil refineries and 400,000 barrels of daily oil production will be among the assets of Yukos going under the hammer from March. US Congressman urged Russia to release jailed ex-billionair Khodorkovsky.

The receiver says the first auction of Yukos assets will be held next month, with its shares in Rosneft and Gazprom Neft expected to be the first to go. The receiver, Eduard Rebgun, values the assets at around $22 billion, but Yukos owes the government $26 billion in back taxes. Yukos says the assets are worth more - at least enough to pay off the debts. The company says that the tax claims against it are the Kremlin's revenge for the political activities of its former head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is serving an eight-year jail term in Siberia for fraud and tax evasion. Yukos' top assets include a 20% stake in Gazprom's oil arm Gazprom Neft, 9.4% of Rosneft and two oil production units: Tomskneft and Samaraneftegaz. Yukos was once Russia's second-biggest oil company, pumping one in every five barrels the country produced. In 2004, the back tax bill led to Yukos' main Yuganskneftegaz subsidiary being expropriated by the government and sold off at auction. It was ultimately acquired by the state-owned oil company, Rosneft. Rosneft and Gazprom are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries in the next round of auctions.

US Congressman Tom Lantos urged Russia to release jailed ex-billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, saying his imprisonment cast „a very severe shadow” over the country's reputation. Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, and his former business partner Platon Lebedev are serving eight years in Siberia after their convictions for fraud and tax evasion. „I do not believe in selective prosecution of individuals and I very much hope that this issue, which is such a very severe shadow over the reputation of Russia at the present moment, will be removed by the Russian government at the earliest possible time,” Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters in Moscow today. The Congressman's comments will buoy Kremlin critics who say the Russian government targeted Khodorkovsky for political reasons, pointing to his prosecution and parallel dismantling of his OAO Yukos Oil Co., at one point Russia's largest oil producer, as proof of a lack of rule of law in Russia. Prosecutors on February 5 filed new embezzlement and money laundering charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, which may potentially add at least 15 years to their sentences. The two would have been eligible for parole later this year.

Lantos, a critic of President Vladimir Putin, demanded Russia's expulsion from the G-8 leading industrial nations in May 2005 after a Russian court convicted Khodorkovsky and Lebedev of tax evasion and fraud. Earlier this month, the California Democrat urged the US State Department to classify Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as political prisoners in an annual report expected in March on human rights around the world. „I would very much like to visit Mr Khodorkovsky; I do consider him a political prisoner and I fully expect the Russian government to use the law in an equal fashion as is appropriate in all advanced and civilized countries, „ Lantos said today. Lantos met with Russian lawmakers and officials including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his visit to Moscow. Khodorkovsky's supporters have accused the Kremlin of persecuting him because he funded opposition parties and to pursue a goal of increasing state control of the energy sector. State-run OAO Rosneft acquired Yukos' main production arm in late 2004. Rosneft along with natural gas monopoly OAO Gazprom are eying other Yukos assets to be auctioned off this year. Yukos was declared bankrupt after the state levied almost $28 billion in back taxes against the company. (BBC NEWS, Bloomberg)