Russia's Gazprom natural gas giant and state-owned oil company Rosneft issued conflicting statements Thursday about their hotly anticipated merger, casting a cloud of doubt over a deal that would create a powerful Kremlin-controlled energy giant and pave the way for foreign ownership of Gazprom's shares. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said Thursday that the merger would be wrapped up by June, but Rosneft quickly disputed his account of the merger, saying it had yet to decide which of its assets Gazprom would receive. It also challenged Miller's claim that Rosneft's head would take the helm of a former unit of the embattled Yukos oil giant. "The process of consolidating the companies will take place de jure and de facto in the course of several months," Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said at a Cabinet meeting Thursday, according to the ITAR-Tass and Interfax news agencies. Formally the deal would be complete in June, but the full integration of Rosneft into Gazprom would be complete only by year's end, Miller was quoted as saying. The tieup had been stalled after a Houston bankruptcy court banned the auction of the stricken Yukos oil giant's core production subsidiary Yuganskeftegaz against its parent company's disputed US$28 billion (Ђ21 billion) back tax claims. The claims are seen as Kremlin-engineered punishment for the perceived political aspirations of Yukos jailed ex-CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After buying the mystery company that won the auction, Rosneft became the owner of a disputed asset, and the merger was put on hold. Last week, the Houston court threw out Yukos' plea for bankruptcy protection for lack of jurisdiction effectively giving the green light for the merger to go ahead. While Yuganskneftegaz, which produces 1 million barrels per day, will be kept separate from Gazprom and Rosneft, Miller said Thursday that the company would work closely with Rosneft. However, in a statement issued Thursday after the Cabinet meeting, Rosneft's press service said Miller's earlier claims that Yuganskneftegaz will become an independent state company led by Rosneft chief Sergei Bogdanchikov "do not correspond to reality and should be considered the personal opinion of the Gazprom board chairman." The decision on which assets to roll into Gazprom would be "made after further evaluation," the statement said, adding that Rosneft would remain an independent legal entity while retaining full control of the assets its would transfer to Gazprom. Any deal would need to take into account Rosneft's huge US$20 billion (Ђ15 billion) debts, which swelled with the acquisition of Yuganskneftgaz for US$9.3 billion (Ђ7 billion), it said. At Thursday's Cabinet meeting, Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said the government was discussing the possibility of selling a part of Yuganskneftegaz to outside shareholders "I think that Yuganskneftegaz will be moved in the direction of a vertically integrated company, and doing this will depend on attracting outside stockholders," he was quoted by Interfax as saying. "As for the opportunity for stockholders to be involved in this company, that question is being discussed with our foreign partners and is not closed." Representatives of Chinese and Indian governments and oil companies have said they are interested in the company. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Economic Development Minister German Gref, both longtime critics of the monopoly, again assailed it at Thursday's Cabinet meeting. "Gazprom's budget strategy is unintelligible," Gref was reported as saying by Itar-Tass. He noted that despite high prices for oil and gas the company was irresponsibly ratcheting up its debts. Kudrin said that the company's investment plan would need additional work before the government would endorse it and urged it to slash internal costs. Associated Press
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