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Moscow court refuses to seize RussNeft oil co. securities -1

(Recasts lead, para 2, adds details, background in paras 3-7)

MOSCOW, August 6 (RIA Novosti) - A Moscow court has refused to order the seizure of securities held by private oil group RussNeft, the head of the court's press service said Monday.

The seizure had been requested by the Interior Ministry, whose investigators have been conducting a tax evasion and illegal business probe against the company's CEO, Anna Usacheva said. The spokeswoman declined to explain the court's decision.

CEO Mikhail Gutseriyev, who has denied the accusations, and does not yet face formal charges, resigned on July 30. RussNeft, one of Russia's top ten crude producers with recoverable reserves of more than 630 million metric tons (4.6 billion barrels), faces substantial back tax claims.

Moscow's Arbitration Court upheld in July a claim by tax authorities that the company owes 3.7 billion rubles ($145 million) in back taxes for 2003 and the first quarter of 2004. The court is now examining a series of transactions involving RussNeft securities that the Federal Tax Service says are illegal.

In a statement briefly posted on the company's Web site on July 30, Gutseriyev said he had been forced to resign and sell the oil business under pressure from prosecutors and tax authorities. However, the tycoon later said the decision to sell RussNeft was made by shareholders, and that the company would be sold at market value.

Earlier the company reported that Kremlin-friendly industrial holding Basic Element, controlled by billionaire Oleg Deripaska, had applied to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service for permission to acquire a controlling stake in RussNeft. Under Russian law, the service must make a decision within three months. A source close to the negotiations said the deal could be worth $6.5-$7 billion.

If charged and convicted, Gutseriyev faces up to six years in prison, in a case reminiscent of legal battles for the now bankrupt oil firm Yukos, widely seen in the West as punishment for its founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and as part of a Kremlin campaign to regain control of oil and gas assets.

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