BP Recalls 148 Workers From Russia On Visa Issue

MOSCOW, March 25, 2008 (Dow Jones Newswires)

British energy giant BP PLC is recalling 148 employees from Russia due to alleged visa problems, an official with BP's Russian joint venture said Tuesday.

The move follows a raid last week on the joint venture, TNK-BP, and the announcement that a low-level employee had been charged with industrial espionage. It appeared to signal that Russian regulators plan to squeeze the company further.

TNK-BP spokeswoman Marina Dracheva told The Associated Press that the employees are being recalled temporarily due to "a lack of clarity over their current visa status."

She said those being recalled were mainly engineering and technical staff; 40 top managers who are ex-BP senior managers were unaffected by the recall.

A message left with a spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow wasn't immediately returned.

The Kremlin has increased pressure on foreign energy companies in recent years as part of its effort to consolidate control over the country's largest and most important hydrocarbon deposits. Royal Dutch Shell was forced to cede part of its stake in a massive project on the Pacific island of Sakhalin to state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom.

TNK-BP came under massive official pressure last year, when government regulators said it was not meeting production targets at a giant Siberian gas field and threatened to withdraw its license. The company ultimately sold its stake in the giant Siberian gas field Kovykta to Gazprom.

Last week, police searched TNK-BP offices as well as those of BP; investigators gave conflicting explanations as to the purpose of the search. On Thursday, Russia's top security agency announced that two brothers with dual Russian-U.S. citizenship had been arrested on charges of industrial espionage; one of them was identified as a low-level employee of TNK-BP.

The announcement comes amid dramatically worsening relations between Russia-Britain; Russia earlier this year forced a British cultural organization to close all its Russian offices except for the one in Moscow.

MOSCOW, March 25, 2008 (Dow Jones Newswires)