BP Staff Locked Out As Visa Trouble Ends

A court order banning BP employees from working for its Russian unit, TNK-BP, came at a time when some of them were ready to come back to their jobs after a suspension, a BP spokesman said Wednesday.

BP suspended 148 employees from their posts at TNK-BP in March while visa irregularities were resolved, and was successfully working to reinstate them when the injunction hit, Vladimir Buyanov said.

Court marshals served TNK-BP, the country's third-largest oil producer, with the order from the Tyumen Arbitration Court on May 5, the company said Wednesday. At least 24 employees could resume work at TNK-BP at that time, and that number had grown to almost half of the total as of this week, BP's Buyanov said.

Buyanov would not say why the employees who had received visas before May 5 did not go to back to work at TNK-BP's head office before the Tyumen court ruling.

The injunction, issued at the request of a small TNK-BP shareholder, little-known Moscow brokerage Tetlis, came amid ongoing speculation that some of the company's shareholders were being forced to sell out to Gazprom.

Tetlis filed the lawsuit just a week after it bought a mere $40,000 worth of shares in TNK-BP, the company's chief operating officer Tim Summers said Wednesday, Reuters reported.

A delay in having the specialists back at work could hurt TNK-BP operations as it is working to expand output, Summers said.

"Not being able to have access to these BP specialists is a problem for us as they were providing expertise in drilling, project management, bringing new fields on line and industrial safety," Summers told reporters on a trip to the Orenburg region in comments confirmed by TNK-BP's press service.

BP and a group of Russian billionaires each control 50 percent of TNK-BP. Unlisted TNK-BP owns 95 percent of listed TNK-BP Holding, while the remaining 5 percent is a free float.

TNK-BP shareholders Viktor Vekselberg, Len Blavatnik, Mikhail Fridman and German Khan are thought to differ over the possible sale of their stakes to Gazprom. They have twice issued statements that they weren't going to sell, but Vekselberg said he could agree if the price was right.

Tetlis directors Alexander Tagayev and Vadim Zykov are cited on the brokerage's web site as saying they are former employees of Alfa Group, the conglomerate controlled by Fridman and Khan.

Tetlis last year moved out of the office advertised on its web site, a guard at the office building said Wednesday. The company left no indications of its new location, but occasionally sends a cleaning lady to pick up the mail, he said.

Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller and a group of other senior managers were expected to attend Wednesday's UEFA Cup Final between Gazprom-controlled football club Zenit and Glasgow Rangers on Wednesday evening. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said he did not know whether Miller would meet for talks with his BP counterpart, Tony Hayward, while in Britain.