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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Threats Over Yukos Tax, Licenses Recede

Embattled oil major Yukos won a reprieve on Thursday as officials quashed rumors of a tax probe and oil license seizures.

Ministerial rumblings that Yukos could lose licenses to drill oil and media speculation that law-enforcement agencies could attack it over use of tax loopholes have rattled markets nearly as much as the arrest of then-CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky last month.

The RTS closed up 2.28 percent at the close on a wave of relief that the feared moves against the company did not materialize. Yukos stock was up more than 6 percent.

A local Natural Resources Ministry official in Yukos' Siberian home base, the central Khanty-Mansiisk region, played down earlier statements by Minister Vitaly Artyukhov that Yukos may lose its licenses.

Interfax quoted the official as saying the ministry was not checking licenses controlled by key Yukos unit Yuganskneftegaz, which controls several billion barrels of oil reserves.

Four licenses for small fields controlled by Yukos itself are being checked.

"Yukos [as a parent company] is the smallest subsoil user in the region," the official was quoted as saying.

The ministry has confirmed Yukos faces investigation of licenses in another key unit, Siberian Tomskneft. On Thursday Interfax also reported the ministry was checking a Yukos Arctic gas unit on observance of environmental protection laws.

In Thursday's Kommersant, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin was quoted as saying that he saw oil companies' use of tax loopholes as "amoral but not illegal," easing fears that law-enforcement agencies might inflict severe financial damage on Yukos.

The Tax Ministry also canceled a briefing on Thursday about oil industry taxation, amid market rumors the country could charge the oil group billions of dollars of additional taxes to make up for use of those tax loopholes.

Heated debate over oil companies' use of such tactics has become a sideshow to prosecutors' attacks on Yukos.

Kudrin's remarks echoed those made on Wednesday by State Audit Chamber official Vladimir Panskov, who conducted checks of Sibneft, which completed its merger with Yukos last month.

Panskov said Sibneft's tax minimization tactics were "ethically not very pretty, but legal." His findings, which cleared Sibneft of all but minor violations, were sent to the Tax Ministry for follow-up.

He had checked Sibneft's tax treatment of oil transactions with independent middlemen in low-tax zones within Russia.

Some backward Russian regions charge low or zero taxes to stimulate economic activity.

Some of the independent companies that traded oil with Sibneft out of those regions later merged with the oil company.

A lawyer for Alexei Pichugin, the former Yukos security service chief charged with murder, said on Thursday she had filed a complaint of mistreatment in jail with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.