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Special forces raid Russian oil firm's headquarters

Russian law enforcement officials attempted to seize the headquarters of the Russian oil company Yukos yesterday, days after it was landed with a tax bill of £3.8 billion.

Special forces troops were among an estimated 100 officials who were seen gathering in the lobby of the beleaguered company's head office close to the Paveletskaya railway station in Moscow. Yukos, formerly headed by the jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was presented with a court order on Thursday demanding payment of taxes £1.9 billion for the year 2000 within five days.

Later the same day an additional bill for £1.9 billion was announced for the 2001 tax year.

The company, which produces more oil than Libya, has warned that it is on the brink of collapse. Police officers were visible through the glass front of the building while others inside in plain clothes were thought to be representatives of the general prosecutor's office. Some of the officials appeared to be filling in papers but would not respond to questions outside the building.

Outside the 18-storey steel and granite office block, a cordon of eight OMON (police special forces) officers armed with batons prevented anybody from entering.

Other officials could be seen through the tinted glass front of the building, apparently collecting bundles of papers. A guard said the officials presented documents authorising them to enter.

The Yukos chairman, Viktor Gerashchenko, warned on Friday that the company could not meet the enormous combined tax bill, and will be driven to bankruptcy if a court order preventing sales of its core assets is not lifted.

The company's accounts are frozen and it could be forced to halt production at its oil fields.

"This could drive the company into the ground," said Mr Gerashchenko.

A Yukos spokesman, Alexander Shadrin, said officials had seized vital computer servers during the raid, a move that could force the company to halt oil production.

"Our central dispatch unit responsible for oil production is in this building," he said. "Confiscating servers means damaging the coordination of production in our core regions [in Siberia]. This means output may stop as soon as today. This isn't a joke any more." The onslaught against Yukos is seen as retaliation for Mr Khodorkovsky's funding of anti-Kremlin political parties.

He went on trial last month in a separate criminal prosecution on charges of fraud and tax evasion. The trial is temporarily adjourned and is due to restart on July 12.

A spokesman for the prosecutor general's office said: "The investigative procedure is part of the criminal case based on charges of fraud and tax evasion against structures controlled by Yukos."

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