* Three of five Petroplus plants sold to traders
* Gunvor plans to restart refinery shortly
* Vitol, Fund Energy and Klesch were eyeing plant
By Emma Farge
GENEVA, May 31 (Reuters) - Swiss-based trader Gunvor, co-owned by a Russian tycoon, has bought a second European oil plant from Petroplus, as trading houses emerge as the biggest winners from the insolvent refiner's asset sale.
Petroplus' five plants came on the market at a time when trading houses, traditionally the middle-men in global oil markets, are seeking to snap up physical assets to become more like integrated oil firms as profit margins shrink.
Gunvor, partially owned by Gennady Timchenko, announced on Thursday the purchase of the 100,000 barrel per day Ingolstadt plant in Germany, following an agreement to buy the Antwerp refinery in Belgium in March.
"...We are delighted to have signed a purchase agreement for what will be again a key asset for Gunvor as we look to confirm our presence in Europe and diversify our trading activity in Germany," said Gunvor Chief Executive Torbjorn Tornqvist.
Gunvor has expanded dramatically into foreign trade and assets after ceding its top spot in the Russian crude oil export market to rivals.
Traders said that the relatively complex German plant processes Kazakh Caspian blend grades which are currently being sold by state-controlled Russian oil firm Rosneft.
"They have cornered an area of Europe. They can bring assets in and they have outlets all across the region," said the business development manager of a London trading house.
Gunvor said it expected to complete the purchase in the third quarter and will restart the plant as soon as possible after a three-month outage. It gave no financial details for the deal.
The expansion of traders and private investors into the European downstream market comes as majors like Total and Royal Dutch Shell seek to exit the sector suffering from thin crude oil processing margins, often by selling plants at knock-down prices.
Earlier this month rival trading house Vitol teamed up with the co-founder of Petroplus, Marcel Van Poecke, to buy the insolvent refiner's Swiss plant. [I D:nL4E8G33R3]
Private investor Gary Klesch confirmed that he was among the bidders for the German plant.
Vitol and Fund Energy, an investment vehicle founded by former Russian energy minister Igor Yusufov, had previously expressed interest in the asset.
The German plant's sale will likely come as a relief to authorities after the administrator for the Petroplus Coryton plant in Britain, widely seen as the firm's most attractive asset, failed to find a buyer, endangering hundreds of jobs.
Petroplus, formerly Europe's largest independent refiner, filed for insolvency in January after it defaulted on $1.75 billion of debt.
Further European oil refineries likely face closure as their prospects of surviving the collapse of Petroplus are crushed by reprieves from death row of more profitable U.S. rivals.