The Russian oil company Yukos filed for bankruptcy protection in U.S. courts yesterday and petitioned a federal judge in Houston to block the forced sale of the company's Siberia oil subsidiary.

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MOSCOW — The Russian oil company Yukos took the unusual step of filing for bankruptcy protection in U.S. courts yesterday and petitioned a federal judge in Houston to block the forced sale of the company’s leading oil subsidiary in Siberia.

In a desperate move to forestall the breakup of the company over the next few days, Russia’s second-largest oil company made a last-ditch appeal under American law. The firm sought a restraining order to prevent Russian tax authorities from auctioning off Yukos’ largest production facility, Yuganskneftegaz.

Analysts said it was unlikely but not impossible that U.S. courts could assert jurisdiction in a fight between a Russian company and the Russian tax authorities. It seemed even less likely that Russian officials, already miffed at U.S. pro-democracy activism in neighboring Ukraine, would obey an American judge’s order to halt what some see as a plan by President Vladimir Putin to reassert state control over Russia’s vast oil wealth.

For the past year, the government has been escalating a legal campaign against Yukos and its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for alleged tax evasion. The sale of Yuganskneftegaz will probably lead to the dismantling of the company, financial analysts said. In a separate case, Khodorkovsky is being tried on charges of tax evasion and fraud, and faces up to 10 years in prison.

The charges and challenges to Yukos are widely seen as retaliation by the Kremlin for Khodorkovsky’s rising political profile. The government denies that claim, saying it is simply prosecuting financial crimes.

Khodorkovsky, 41, has been in jail since his arrest more than a year ago. He and his allies backed parties that opposed Putin, fought efforts to raise taxes on oil producers and tried to build private pipelines, breaking a state monopoly.

“The step we took today was done as a last resort to preserve the rights of our shareholders, employees and customers,” Steven Theede, the chief executive of Yukos Oil Co., said in a statement. “The actions by the Russian authorities appear to be expropriation — 21st century style.”

On Sunday, Russian authorities have scheduled the sale of Yuganskneftegaz, the heart of Yukos’ business empire. Outside estimates have valued the subsidiary, which produces more than 1 million barrels of oil a day for Yukos out of Siberia, as high as $18.6 billion. However, the government has set a minimum bid of only $8.65 billion.

The Russian state-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, is widely expected to win the auction. Two other little-known companies also have submitted bids.

The acquisition by a Kremlin-controlled company such as Gazprom would bring a key asset in the country’s burgeoning energy sector — lost in the privatizations of the 1990s — back under state control.

In its court petition, Yukos says the Russian court system lacks independence from the Kremlin. It is asking the American court to halt Sunday’s auction and order Gazprom and its financing banks not to bid on Yuganskneftegaz.

Yukos’ lawyers assert that the company’s business operations in the United States, together with the large number of American investors damaged by the tax case, are sufficient to give U.S. courts jurisdiction in the case.

Yukos’ chief financial officer, Bruce Misamore, is based in Houston. An emergency hearing was scheduled for today in Houston.

Michael Delyagin, chairman of the Institute for Globalization Studies in Moscow, said an order from a U.S. court would have no force in Russia, but he said the court could freeze bank accounts outside of Russia or even halt Gazprom shipments of gas to Europe.

James Mandel, a business lawyer with Ernst and Young Legal Services in Moscow, said U.S. bankruptcy law can extend to companies with tenuous business connections to the United States.

“Basically, any company doing business in the United States, even though it is a foreign company, and even though most of its business activity is outside the U.S., can apply for bankruptcy protection,” he said. “It’s what we would call a low jurisdictional hurdle.”

If Gazprom were to proceed with a purchase of Yuganskneftegaz in violation of a U.S. court order, Mandel said, the company could be held in contempt and its assets seized, in the United States and possibly in Europe. Banks loaning money to Gazprom to finance the acquisition would also “have to think about that,” Mandel said.

Compiled from Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Reuters and

Bloomberg News reports