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ENI CEO plays down prospect of quick share buyback

By Giancarlo Navach

MILAN, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Italian oil major ENI may take well over a year to buy back up to 10 percent of its share capital, part of a complex operation to maintain the state's controlling stake in the company, its chief executive suggested on Friday.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta said last month that Italy would sell 3 percent of ENI in 2014 to help rein in the country's massive public debt, the fourth-largest in the world.

The Treasury has 4.34 percent of ENI and state lender Cassa Depositi e Prestiti holds another 25.76 percent, bringing the state's total holding to 30.1 percent.

If that stake grew, stock exchange rules would force the government to make a takeover bid for the company, while a smaller holding would bring the government lower dividends.

ENI CEO Paolo Scaroni told Radio24 on Friday that ENI was ready to start the buyback but it would take a long time to complete.

"To give you a feeling, we took nine years to carry out a previous one for 10 percent (of the capital). It's not like this one will take nine months. It takes a long time," he said.

Two sources close to the matter have said the government's plan to sell part of its ENI stake entail the company first buying back around 10 percent of its capital and annulling the shares to increase the relative weight of the state's holding.

"(The government) will decide what it thinks fit on the matters that pertain to it," Scaroni said when asked about the government's plans.

Scaroni also indicated he hoped to seek a fourth term when his current mandate expires next spring.

He said oil production from Kazakhstan's Kashagan field was unlikely to be delayed to 2015 after output from the world's biggest crude discovery in half a century was halted due to a gas leak.

Eni is part of the North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC), which is developing Kashagan and also includes Kazakh state oil firm KazMunaiGas, U.S. group ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, France's Total and Japan's Inpex .

Asked if production might only be restarted in 2015 as suggested by some in the industry, Paolo Scaroni said: "No, I really don't think so. Within a few weeks we should understand (the problem). It shouldn't take that long."