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Brazil audit court orders Petrobras to restart asset sales

(Adds mention of distribution company, union lawyer comment)

By Leonardo Goy

BRASILIA, March 15 (Reuters) - Brazil's federal audit court TCU on Wednesday allowed state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA to proceed with its divestment program, but required the company to restart the process except for two projects.

The decision means that moves by Petrobras, as the company is known, to sell off a controlling stake in its fuels distribution unit BR Distribuidora will return to scratch.

Petrobras had been prevented from signing any new asset sales while TCU reviewed its procedures and the court overturned an injunction that suspended sales in December.

The two assets that Petrobras will be able to sell without restarting the process from scratch are the rights to operate the Baúna and Tartaruga Verde offshore oil fields, and a share of Petrobras' deepwater rights in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico.

Other assets will have to be sold under new rules that were not immediately made public. Sale decisions will remain the responsibility of the board of directors, through direct negotiations with buyers instead of a bidding process.

Petrobras is expected to comply with the TCU decision, though the company declined to comment.

Saulo Puttini, the TCU's infrastructure coordinator, told reporters the new rules will increase transparency and oversight in future asset sales.

Petrobras has sold about 30 assets since 2012 when the divestment program began, Puttini said, noting that another 40 remain to be sold.

The divestment plan has also been held up by an injunction obtained by the Alagoas oil workers union in Sergipe state, Sindipetro-AL/SE. The injunction has blocked the sale of the Baúna and Tartaruga Verde oil fields, the Baúna and Tartaruga Verde oil fields, as well as the inland fields in the states of Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Sergipe, Bahia and Espírito Santo.

The union's lawyer, Raquel Sousa, said in an interview that the oil workers would not accept the sale of Petrobras assets without a bidding process as provided for by Brazilian law to protect the country's capital.

The injunction in November forced Petrobras to suspend talks with Karoon Gas Australia Ltd on the sale of a 100 percent stake in the 45,000 barrels-per-day Bauna field, in the Santos Basin, and a 50 percent interest in Tartaruga Verde, still in development, in the Campos Basin.

(Reporting by Leonardo Goy; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Richard Chang)