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Norwegian Telecom Telenor Sells Stake In Russian Operator VimpelCom

Norwegian telecom giant Telenor says it will sell its remaining stake in the Russian phone company VimpelCom, after years of on-again, off-again conflict between the two companies.

The announcement on October 5 by Telenor to sell its 33 percent stake in VimpelCom, reportedly valued at around $2.4 billion, comes as VimpelCom faces a U.S. corruption investigation stemming from its operations in Uzbekistan.

In its U.S. securities filing and public statements, Telenor made no mention of the investigation, which involves another Russian cell operator, MTS, and is turning into one of the largest corruption probes by U.S. authorities.

Telenor said its voting share in VimpelCom, Russia's third-largest mobile network operator, had been "diluted" to 25 percent following transactions among three other companies. The Norwegian company said it would also end legal claims against VimpelCom and two other companies, including one that used to control the VimpelCom stake owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman and his partners.

"Telenor has been a long-standing and highly supportive shareholder for many years, helping to build our business. As VimpelCom moves forward with its recently announced new business strategy, we will work with Telenor to ensure a successful divestiture of their stake," VimpelCom said in a statement.

The issue of alleged bribes paid by telecom companies to gain access to the lucrative mobile-phone market in Uzbekistan has gathered steam this year. The daughter of Uzbekistan's president is at the center of the allegations.

In January, Norwegian regulators said they were investigating allegations made in a whistle-blower letter that said Telenor knew of bribes that VimpelCom allegedly had paid to enter the Uzbek market.

Last month, the Swedish-Finnish telecom company TeliaSonera announced it would sell its business interests in Uzbekistan, where it has also become ensnared in the corruption investigation, which is also taking place in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and elsewhere.

The U.S. Justice Department said in June that it was seeking to seize $300 million that the department claimed to be the proceeds of an international conspiracy involving VimpelCom and MTS and the Uzbek market.

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