Trans-Balkan partners form operator

Russia, Bulgaria and Greece signed an agreement today on the creation of a project company, Burgas-Alexandroupolis, for the trans-Balkan pipeline that will export Black Sea oil via Bulgaria and Greece.

The company will be registered in the Netherlands, Russian oil pipeline monopoly Transneft said in a statement.

President Vladimir Putin said Russia aimed to have the scheme completed soon.

"This is the penultimate step before realising the project. We heard today from our ministers and experts they intend to complete it in the very near future," Putin told reporters during a state visit to Moscow by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.

The 285 kilometre pipeline will take 700,000 barrels per day of Russian oil a year from Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Burgas to Greece's Alexandroupolis on the Aegean Sea, with the possibility to increase this to 1 million barrels in the future. The three countries in March sealed a long-postponed deal to build the pipeline, which is due to come on stream in 2009, and is seen as a further consolidation of Russia's influence on the European energy market.

Transneft, Russian state-controlled oil producer Rosneft and Gazprom Neft , the oil arm of gas export monopoly Gazprom , will share the 51% Russian stake and provide crude for the project.

Bulgaria and Greece will each have 24.5% of the pipeline, which will bypass the congested Turkish Bosphorus Straits and has an estimated cost of up to €1 billion ($1.43 billion).

Greek shareholders of the project include the country's largest refinery, Hellenic Petroleum , oil company Thraki and the government, while the Bulgarian project company Burgas-Alexandroupolis BG will own the Bulgarian stake, Reuters reported.

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