* Former vice-president takes over at state oil firm
* He replaces CEO fired after just 18 months
* No reason given for change in personnel
* Reshuffle risks destabilising company: analyst
(Changes sourcing, edits throughout)
By Lamine Chikhi and Christian Lowe
ALGIERS, Nov 17 Algeria's state energy
firm Sonatrach named its fourth chief executive in two years on
Thursday, bringing new disruption to a company that supplies a
large share of Europe's gas but is struggling to get new
exploration projects off the ground.
Nourredine Cherouati, appointed chief executive just 18
months ago in the wake of a corruption scandal, was replaced by
Abdelhamid Zerguine, a one-time vice-president in the firm who
until now ran a Sonatrach affiliate in Switzerland.
Officials offered no explanation for the change at the top
of Sonatrach, a company with opaque internal workings which
takes its orders from the Algerian government.
"The change could be necessary, but it also could
destabilize a big company like Sonatrach," said Salah Mouhoubi,
an Algerian academic and specialist on the economy.
"I think Sonatrach needs stability, and changing CEOs once
every year is not good. I am also wondering about how
international companies will read the change ... I am afraid
that it could isolate Sonatrach and Algeria's oil sector."
Sonatrach issued a statement saying that Energy and Mines
Minister Youcef Yousfi had installed the new chief executive at
a ceremony on Thursday attended by ministry officials and
The announcement confirmed information from three government
sources who had earlier told Reuters that Cherouati was to be
replaced by the 61-year-old Zerguine.
The new head of the company is an engineer by training who
joined Sonatrach in 1976. The subsidiary he ran in Switzerland
in his last job is part-owned by Italian major ENI, the
Sonatrach statement said.
The new chief executive's challenge will be to try to speed
up exploration as Algeria, an OPEC member, seeks replacements
for the mature fields which account for most of its oil and gas
Attempts to attract foreign energy companies to invest in
exploration projects have foundered over the past three years.
Potential investors say they are put off by unattractive
Industry sources in Algeria say there is a growing
recognition that hydrocarbons legislation has to change to make
the terms more attractive, or the country could face a drop-off
in output in a few years time.
"There are ideas taking shape (on reform of the hydrocarbons
law) because the evolution taking place in the world does not
allow us to be rigid," Energy Minister Yousfi was quoted in a
state-run newspaper this week as saying.
However, there is resistance to any relaxation of the rules
from powerful figures in the government who have led a push
towards resource nationalism.
Sonatrach is still suffering from the effects of a
corruption investigation which led, in January last year, to the
departure of then chief executive Mohamed Meziane and most of
the company's top executives.
Meziane was briefly replaced by caretaker CEO Abdelhafid
Feghouli. He was moved aside to make way for Cherouati, until
then head of an energy sector regulator.
Cherouati gave a briefing to local media on Wednesday in
which he denied rumours he was about to be fired.
He said though there was a orchestrated campaign against him
because the changes he was pushing through had "annoyed some
people and interests."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed; writing by Christian
Lowe; editing by Anthony Barker)