Russia's biggest oil firm Rosneft on Friday described as "very interesting" a proposal from BP to acquire a large stake in its capital under a deal that could see the British firm sell out of TNK-BP.
The comments by Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin -- the right-hand-man of President Vladimir Putin on energy -- intensified expectations that Rosneft will acquire the 50 percent stake BP wants to sell in its Russian joint venture TNK-BP.
The announcement came just a day after various reports said Rosneft was seeking a $10-15 billion loan to buy BP's half of the venture it owns with Russian tycoons.
"We think this is a very interesting proposal," Russian news agencies quoted Sechin as telling reporters at a company board meeting in the Black Sea port of Sochi.
The Russian oil champion and BP last year tore up a $16 billion share swap and joint Arctic oil exploration agreement after it was successfully challenged by the TNK-BP oligarch shareholders who wanted the deal for themselves.
The venture pays BP billions in annual dividends and was last year responsible for about a quarter of its oil output.
But it has also been the source of constant board battles and a drag on the company's stock because of occasional interventions from the Russian state on the side of the billionaires.
The sale by BP of its entire TNK-BP stake for cash and shares in Rosneft could bolster its shaky standing in the world's largest oil producing country and give it access to coveted Arctic oil.
Putin had unexpectedly received BP's chief executive and chairman for closed-door talks this week that Sechin said included a formal proposal from the British firm to swap shares under a TNK-BP buyout arrangement.
Sechin did not directly address the swap possibility while admitting that his firm was looking at "market mechanisms" that could ease through a deal without needing to tap foreign debt markets.
"There is no doubt that if we had to attract resources to purchase (a stake) in TNK-BP, we could finance the deal using market mechanisms alone, without loans or obtaining addition capital," Sechin said without explaining his comments.
He sounded positive about an eventual agreement but insisted that the two sides would not be pressed into immediate action by market expectations.
"We will do it when we agree," Sechin said when asked about possible time frames.
A deal would represent a triumph for BP after a year in which it saw its biggest competitors -- from Texas-based ExxonMobil to Italy's ENI and Norway's Statoil -- strike big deals to develop some of the world's most sought-after sections of the sea.
Rosneft had 12 offshore fields to license in recent months and has decided to select foreign partners who have not only the experience and technology but also financing and their own global assets to offer in return.
It has already awarded seven contracts and has only two Arctic lots left -- both in separate sections of the Barents Sea.
The possibility of losing out on those last offers and then leaving its TNK-BP venture would have been a brutal blow to BP chief Bob Dudley after a decade of tireless efforts to build better Kremlin relations.
The British group reaffirmed on Friday that "we aim to be an investor in Russia for decades to come" with or without a TNK-BP deal.
A BP spokesman said his group would be even looking to enter a Rosneft alliance if it ended up being bought out of the joint venture by the tycoons rather than the Russian state.
"If we are successful in selling our share in TNK-BP, we would be interested in investing some of the proceeds in buying shares of Rosneft," said the London spokesman.