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In Gaffe, Sechin Says BP Chief Is Quitting

Drilling vessels working to remove oil gushing at BP?€™s Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico on Saturday. James Edward Bates

The government was left red-faced Monday after Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin told reporters that embattled BP CEO Tony Hayward would quit soon and reveal his successor during a visit to Moscow.

BP denied a management shuffle, and a Sechin aide said the deputy prime minister had meant to confirm that he had read media reports that Hayward might leave amid criticism over his response to an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But Sechin's remarks, which came as Hayward held closed-door talks with the deputy prime minister, caused the government to scramble to contain any fallout in its relations with BP.

"I would want to hope that what Mr. Sechin said would not damage this relationship," government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

"Mr. Sechin has a good relationship with BP, and they have a lot of topics to discuss, primarily related to Rosneft, in which BP has a stake," he said.

Hayward assured Sechin during their talks that BP remained committed to its Russian projects, Sechin's aide told The Moscow Times. There was no talk of Hayward leaving his post, he said.

BP holds 1.3 percent of state-run Rosneft, Russia's biggest oil company, and a 50 percent stake in the TNK-BP joint venture, which accounts for about a quarter of BP's global output. BP's commitment to its Russian assets has come under doubt after the company agreed to a U.S. demand to set up a $20 billion fund to deal with the oil spill.

About two hours before Monday's talks, Sechin announced to reporters that Hayward was on his way out. "We know that Tony Hayward is leaving his position, and he will introduce his successor," Sechin said.

A BP spokeswoman in London initially denied any plans for a change in management. She later stopped taking questions on the issue.

Monday's meeting, which was also attended by Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko, addressed issues concerning Rosneft, TNK-BP and measures to deal with potential disasters, said Sechin's aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with state policy.

"Hayward and Sechin talked about the spill in great detail, and Sechin proposed creating a special mobile equipment reserve," the aide said, without elaborating.

The government has kept a close eye on BP's activities in Russia following the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from an offshore drilling accident on April 20. BP has spent $2.65 billion to clean up the area so far, it said in a statement Monday.

Sechin, who is also Rosneft's chairman, has said the company was prepared to buy out BP's stake if offered. But the aide said Hayward had indicated that BP had no plans to unload shares in Rosneft or TNK-BP.

A TNK-BP spokesman confirmed that BP had no plans to sell its stake in the company, pointing to TNK-BP chairman Mikhail Fridman's statement earlier this month that BP would not sell. "Nothing has changed over the past 10 days," the spokesman said.

Separately, President Dmitry Medvedev suggested at a G20 summit in Toronto on Sunday that oil companies be ordered to contribute cash to a global fund to deal with oil spills.

"To set an example, Russia is prepared to send a special bill to the State Duma to defend the sea from oil pollution," he said.

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