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MILAN (Reuters) - A warrant to search the premises of Eni (ENI.MI) chief executive Paolo Scaroni was based on a meeting he had with the man alleged to have distributed bribes to win Algerian gas contracts for group company Saipem (SPMI.MI).
State-controlled Eni is the biggest listed Italian company and the leading foreign energy operator in Algeria, where Italy sources 30 percent of its gas, making the North African country vital to its energy security.
On Thursday prosecutors searched Scaroni's home and offices in a widening probe centring on eight contracts worth $11 billion won by Saipem, Europe's biggest oil services group, in 2007-2009.
Scaroni acknowledged fleetingly meeting Farid Noureddine Bedjaoui, whom the search warrant says distributed 198 million euros ($265 million) of bribes to win the contracts, and prosecutors have not accused the CEO of any wrongdoing.
According to the Milan prosecutors, bribes to win contracts assigned by Algeria's state-owned energy giant Sonatrach were paid by companies of the Saipem group to a company called Pearl Partners Limited, based in Hong Kong, of which Bedjaoui, a French national born in Algeria, was a beneficiary.
The prosecutors said Scaroni, together with Eni North Africa chief Antonio Vella, had on one occasion met Bedjaoui and the former Algerian energy minister Chekib Khelil at a Paris hotel.
"The meeting was aimed at obtaining a further order ... to increase profitability at the Menzel Ledjemet Est (MLE) field," the search warrant said.
Scaroni, who pleaded guilty in the 1990s to bribery charges as part of the Tangentopoli scandal that brought down Italy's post-war political parties, could not be reached for comment, but said in Italian daily La Repubblica on Friday that he had met Bedjaoui only briefly.
"What fixer? The person mentioned in the prosecutors' document I met just once in my life and only for a few minutes," Scaroni was quoted as saying.
"He was introduced to me as the special secretary of the Algerian energy minister: he accompanied me, and I never saw him again."
Eni declined further comment on Friday, but said on Thursday that though Scaroni was being investigated, "Eni and its CEO declare themselves totally unrelated to the object of the investigation".
Khelil could not immediately be reached for comment.
In December former long-standing Saipem CEO Pietro Franco Tali and Eni CFO Alessandro Bernini resigned after Milan prosecutors opened an investigation into alleged corruption in Algeria.
Saipem said then that Tali had not been targeted by the probe but resigned to allow the group to better respond to the investigations. Eni said at the time, "While Alessandro Bernini considers that his actions were right and proper it is his view that Eni's interests are better served by his resignation".
Eni shares fell 4.6 percent on Thursday, though they were up about 0.5 percent on Friday.
Saipem offices and the offices of two other current and past senior executives were also searched.
Eni has operated in Algeria since 1981 and has considerable gas assets there that are crucial to Italy, which has little oil and gas production of its own and no nuclear power.
Eni owns 43 percent of Saipem and has said that by law it cannot have any say in its day-to-day business.
Bedjaoiu, a relative of a former Algerian foreign secretary, had numerous contacts with Sonatrach, the prosecutors said.
In the search warrant, prosecutors also said former Eni CFO Bernini and another Saipem executive maintained relations with Pearl Partners in Hong Kong. It was not immediately possible to reach Bernini for a comment, and Reuters was unable to find any contacts for Pear Partners.
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Writing by Stephen Jewkes, Editing by Lisa Jucca and Will Waterman