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Oil and Gas

UPDATE 1-Russian police raid BP venture, question managers

(Adds BP source with details, colour from scene)

MOSCOW, March 19 (Reuters) - Russian police on Wednesday raided offices of British oil major BP BP.L and its venture TNK-BP TNBPI.RTS and questioned managers, in a move likely to spark concerns about the Kremlin's new asset-grab campaign.

TNK-BP is the subject of long-running market speculation that the Kremlin wants one of its own companies, such as state gas monopoly Gazprom GAZP.MM, to buy out the Russian billionaire shareholders in the venture and become a partner of BP, in a bid to further tighten its grip on energy resources.

But the crackdown also comes as Moscow’s relations with London are at an all-time low following Russia’s repeated refusal to extradite to Britain an ex-KGB agent suspected of murdering a vocal Kremlin critic.

Gazprom’s chairman, Dmitry Medvedev, won Russia’s presidential election by a landslide earlier this month and has promised to follow the policies of his mentor, Vladimir Putin, the architect of renationalisation of the oil industry of the past year.

The employees of TNK-BP, Russia’s No. 3 oil producer, were briefly banned from moving in and out of the firm’s headquarters on the famous Arbat street in central Moscow on Wednesday morning after law enforcement officers arrived in two minivans.

“In the evening, the employees have been asked to leave the office earlier,” said one company source. A nearby and much smaller office of BP on Novy Arbat, which hosts oil trading and other operations, was also raided in the evening.

“They are collecting information and they are questioning the country president,” said a BP source who was not in the building but said he had been in telephone contact with colleagues there.

“They are FSB, they are badged up and they have firearms,” he added. “We have the 17th and 18th floors and on one floor they are holding about 20 people and about 15 to 30 people on another floor.”

Most staff were later allowed to leave the office, while senior managers were still being held in the building, the source said.

The Russian shareholders in TNK-BP have repeatedly denied that they have plans to sell their 50 percent stake. BP controls the other 50 percent in TNK-BP.

“Everyone will perceive these searches as a start of a large-scale campaign against the shareholders. And I would not disagree with this,” said a high-level industry source.

Searches and document seizures became commonplace during a campaign against oil company YUKOS, which was brought to its knees under a multibillion-dollar back tax claim that led to its bankruptcy and asset sales at state-forced auctions.

CONFLICTING STATEMENTS

The interior ministry gave conflicting statements as searches progressed, while TNK-BP declined to comment.

The spokeswoman for the interior ministry’s investigation committee, Irina Dudukina, said documents were being removed from TNK-BP as part of a criminal investigation relating to the former oil company Sidanco.

Sidanco, a mid-sized oil company, was among the assets combined in 2003 by Russian investors and BP to form TNK-BP.

Prior to 2003, Sidanco was the main shareholder of the giant Kovykta East Siberian field. TNK-BP and Gazprom are now involved in protracted talks over the future of Kovykta.

But Dudukina later revised her comments, saying the searches were being conducted by another department of the ministry -- the department for economic security -- and were related to an investigation of TNK-BP’s management.

The economic security department spokesman Andrei Pilipchuk said no searches have been conducted by his department, but said a number of TNK-BP’s managers have been questioned in the past days. He said they were not “top managers.”

TNK-BP’s illiquid stock closed 1.79 percent up, at $1.71 a share. But the bid price fell to as low as $1.56 per share.

In February, police raided the headquarters of Slavneft, which TNK-BP co-owns with Gazprom, and also confiscated documents in a five-year-old tax evasion investigation. (Additional reporting by Christian Lowe; Editing by Gary Hill)

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