Siberian oil firm stake could be sold in six weeks - TNK-BP boss

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MOSCOW, March 14 (RIA Novosti) - An auction to sell an 11.29% stake in a Siberian oil and gas company that is central to Russia's energy ambitions in Asia will be held in the next six weeks, the executive director of TNK-BP said Tuesday.

With a 62.7% stake in regional producer Verkhnechonskneftegaz, Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP is the largest shareholder in the company, which is licensed to develop the Verkhnechonsk hydrocarbon deposit, one of the largest in East Siberia. The Irkutsk regional administration holds 11.3% and state-owned oil company Rosneft, which has already made known its intention to acquire the stake set to go under the hammer, owns 25.94%.

"We have signed an agreement with the regional authorities that the stake will be sold at a public auction," Viktor Vekselberg told a news conference.

The Verkhnechonsk deposit is slated to be the largest source of crude for a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, which is at the center of Russia's plans to be the dominant energy supplier to Asian markets. Exploratory drilling has not been completed, but its probable and possible reserve base is estimated at 1.48 billion barrels of oil and 129 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 25 billion barrels of condensate - enough to meet China's current oil import needs for more than two years.

The Russian-British joint-venture plans to build a pipeline stretching 600 kilometers (370 miles) from the field to connect it to Russia's railway network and, later, to the Pacific pipeline.

Asked who would buy the stake in Verkhnechonskneftegaz, which is currently owned by the East Siberian Gas Company, itself set up by TNK-BP and the Irkutsk Region, Vekselberg said: "The highest bidder."

Earlier, Vekselberg, a billionaire who is perhaps best known outside the country for returning a Faberge jeweled egg collection to Russia, said the auction to sell the stake in Verkhnechonskneftegaz would be held in the first quarter of 2006.

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