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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gutseriyev Lawyers Battling Warrant

Lawyers for wanted billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev on Wednesday challenged a warrant for his arrest, as the fate of the country's seventh-largest oil company and its former chief remained unclear.

Gutseriyev's lawyers appealed the arrest warrant, issued Tuesday by Moscow's Tverskoi District Court, and a hearing was set for Sept. 5, a court spokeswoman said, declining to give her name in line with policy.

Russian newspapers speculated that Gutseriyev, who founded and led oil firm Russneft until late July, was hiding in Baku or London to avoid facing charges of illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.

In a letter to Russneft employees last month, Gutseriyev accused tax and law enforcement authorities of pressuring him to step down as CEO of the company. Gutseriyev was believed to have reached a deal to sell to Kremlin-friendly oligarch Oleg Deripaska, but analysts said the renewed legal campaign threw the pact into doubt.

British officials declined to comment on Gutseriyev's whereabouts. "We don't give details on individual visa applications," said James Barbour, spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow.

Spokespeople for Scotland Yard in London said their extradition unit had "no knowledge" of the case.

Repeated calls to the Azeri Interior Ministry went unanswered Wednesday.

Gutseriyev's flight prompted comparisons with the legal onslaught against Yukos and its former managers, many of whom fled abroad as tax authorities piled on billions of dollars of back tax charges against the firm.

"This is reminiscent of the attack on Yukos, though that was harsher. It had a more personal and political character," Alexander Temerko, a former Yukos vice president, said Wednesday by telephone from London. "But the result will be the same."

Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence on charges of fraud and tax evasion. He was arrested in October 2003, as he was reported to be on the verge of selling a stake in Yukos to a U.S. oil firm and funding opposition parties ahead of the December 2003 State Duma elections.

Khodorkovsky repeatedly turned down suggestions that he flee Russia, many who know him say.

Two sources close to Gutseriyev told Vedomosti that the former Russneft president, an ethnic Ingush whose family home is in North Ossetia, had fled to Baku.

Yet Kommersant said the former oil chief had already left the Azeri capital for London.

Azerbaijan maintains an extradition treaty with Russia, and spokespeople for the Azeri Interior Ministry said the country would be ready to hand over Gutseriyev if he were found in the country, Interfax reported.

Ingush President Murat Zyazikov indicated to reporters in Moscow on Wednesday that Gutseriyev failed to attend the funeral of his son, Chingiskhan Gutseriyev, last week in North Ossetia.

"I went to the funeral and I saw his brother there -- the first, the second -- presenting their condolences, and I have no further details," Zyazikov said, Interfax reported. Gutseriyev has two brothers -- Khamzat, who ran for president of the republic in 2002, and Said-Salam, who is a Duma deputy.

Chingiskhan Gutseriyev, 21, was buried in the family plot in North Ossetia last week after reportedly dying from injuries sustained in a car crash in Moscow on Aug. 22.

Mikhail Gutseriyev stands accused of evading taxes and exceeding production quotas at Russneft, which produces about 300,000 barrels of oil per day.

A Moscow arbitration court on Wednesday postponed until Oct. 3 a hearing on two lawsuits brought by the Federal Tax Service over invalid share transactions. The service has brought a total of eight lawsuits against 11 companies that are or have been shareholders in the company.

A court froze Russneft's shares on July 31, blocking Gutseriyev's ability to sell or transfer his stake of about 70 percent and throwing a wrench into Deripaska's plans to buy the firm.

Deripaska's holding company, Basic Element, insists it is still interested in acquiring Russneft, but analysts said confusion over whether he had already bought it pointed to Kremlin infighting over who would scoop up the asset.

"At the big-picture level, we can see that the state is extending control over an important asset, either directly or with friendly hands," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib. "But which mechanisms it is using and what to expect next is where we have no idea," he said. "People are lobbying for their interests around the Cabinet table."

Vedomosti and Kommersant reported Wednesday that the deal with Deripaska, a $9 billion transaction that would leave Gutseriyev with a personal payout of $3 billion to $3.5 billion, had been sealed.

Gutseriyev is already worth some $2.9 billion, according to Forbes.

Vedomosti also reported that the deal would leave Glencore, a Swiss-based commodity trader, with a 25 percent stake in Russneft. Glencore declined to comment Wednesday.

Glencore was owed $2.8 billion by Russneft and already has links to Deripaska, having merged its alumina assets with Deripaska's Russian Aluminum to help create United Company RusAl, the world's largest primary aluminum producer.

The Federal Anti-Monopoly Service insists it has yet to receive a request from Basic Element to approve the bid for Russneft.

Basic Element first sought approval for the purchase on July 30, but the service refused because the holding submitted a one-page letter that did not constitute a legal document, agency head Igor Artemyev said earlier this month.

"It seems as if there is a disagreement at the most senior levels as to how this should play out," Weafer said.

Temerko, the former Yukos vice president, said he believed Rosneft -- which became the country's largest oil company after swallowing most of Yukos -- had its eye on the oil company.

Rosneft officials have denied any interest in acquiring Russneft.