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Board pledges to defend Yukos

Management 'will be where it needs to be'

Yukos faces more than $18 billion in claims for back taxes.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Vladimir V. Putin

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- The board of directors of embattled oil giant Yukos said Thursday it will continue to defend the company from a criminal probe it called politically motivated amid reports that board members have fled Russia.

"The Management Board will continue, despite the escalation in difficulties affecting it, to fulfill its responsibilities to all stakeholders and will, for as long as it can, run the company within the framework of good corporate governance," directors said in a statement issued Thursday evening.

"Management will be wherever it needs to be to ensure this."

The Financial Times reported Wednesday that Yukos' senior executives have left Russia amid a new round of warrants issued by Russian prosecutors.

According to a source quoted by Reuters, Chief Executive Officer Steven Theede and Chief Financial Officer Bruce Misamore, both U.S. citizens, were in London

Yukos' Russian operational managers, Alexander Temerko, Mikhail Trushin and production chief Yuri Beilin had also left the country, and refining and marketing head Pyotr Zolotarev had resigned, the source said.

Yukos faces more than $18 billion in tax claims from the Russian government, of which it has paid off approximately $4 billion.

Former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, remains in jail as his trial on charges of fraud and tax evasion grinds on.

The company is Russia's largest oil producer, pumping about 20 percent of Russia's estimated 9 million barrels per day. Its troubles have contributed to the sharp rise of global oil prices over the past six months.

Khodorkovsky funded opposition political parties and expressed a desire to run for office some day. Putin has said the case is part of a crackdown on corruption and denies any political motivation behind the Yukos probe.

Last week, a report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe concluded that Russian prosecutors singled out Yukos executives "to weaken an outspoken political opponent, intimidate other wealthy individuals and regain control of strategic economic assets."

Russian members of the group dissented from that report, saying it was based only "on the opinion of the defense" in cases against Yukos managers.

To help pay the company's tax debt, Russia's Tax Ministry announced last week that it will auction off a majority stake in a key Yukos subsidiary with a starting price of $8.54 billion -- less than what the company and most analysts say it is worth.

The subsidiary, Yuganskneftegaz, pumped 60 percent of the company's oil and was considered its crown jewel. Analysts have said the sale could destroy Yukos, and CEO Theede called the move a "government-organized theft to settle a political score."

In the past week, Russian law enforcement officials have issued an international arrest warrant for the company's chief lawyer, Nikolai Gololobov, on charges of misappropriating shares in Yukos in 1998. Agents also arrested a manager at a key Yukos subsidiary, Yukos-Moskva.

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