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central bank@ (Corrects article number to 76, not 56, in the eighth paragraph)
* Authorities locked in battle with ex-PrivatBank owner
* Central bank comments may reassure worried investors
* Bank is Ukraine's biggest lender, has most depositors
KIEV, May 15 (Reuters) - The central bank would push to nationalize PrivatBank a second time if a court ruled to annul a 2016 decision to take Ukraine's largest lender into state ownership, a top central bank official told Reuters.
First Deputy Central Bank Governor Kateryna Rozhkova's determination to keep PrivatBank in state hands for now may reassure foreign creditors and investors, who worry that legal wrangling over PrivatBank threatens Ukraine's financial stability.
The authorities have been locked in a protracted battle with the former main owner of PrivatBank, Ihor Kolomoisky, one of Ukraine's richest men, who says his bank was nationalized without justification. He has challenged the decision in court.
Rozhkova said overturning the nationalization would derail Ukraine's $3.9 billion program with the International Monetary Fund and rock investor confidence.
Ratings agency Moody's said last month that overturning the decision would hit Ukraine's credit rating.
It would also pose a challenge for incoming President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has longstanding business ties with Kolomoisky but who has dismissed suggestions that he would return PrivatBank to Kolomoisky or offer him state compensation.
Rozhkova said reversing the nationalization would reverse the mechanism by which the state handed the bank 155 billion hryvnia ($5.88 billion) to rescue it from insolvency.
"Then the bank will be left without capital. We, as a regulator of the financial sector, will make a decision in accordance with the law: Article 76 of the law tells us that we must declare such a bank insolvent," she said in an interview.
This would mean either liquidating the bank or taking it back into state ownership, she said, adding that returning it to state hands would be preferable given its role in the economy.
PrivatBank is Ukraine's biggest lender and has the most depositors, about 20 million by Rozhkova's estimate, in a nation of 42 million.
Rozhkova said the PrivatBank issue would likely top the agenda when an International Monetary Fund mission visits Kiev next week. Ukraine hopes to secure IMF aid worth $1.3 billion after the visit.
A Kiev court ruled in favor of Kolomoisky in April by declaring that the nationalization process had been illegal. The central bank is appealing the decision in a higher court.
Kolomoisky disputes the central bank's assessment of PrivatBank's finances in 2016 and described as "nonsense" findings by a report commissioned by the central bank saying PrivatBank was used for large-scale fraud and money-laundering.
Asked whether he wanted to regain control over PrivatBank or be paid compensation, Kolomoisky told Reuters in April he would negotiate with the government. "I could sue for damages, or we will try to reach some sort of agreement," he said.
Rozhkova said overturning the nationalization would undermine the central bank's independence and encourage owners of other banks declared insolvent to challenge the regulator.
"If today we destroy the independence of the National Bank as an institution, in the end it will have a negative impact on all investors, and international donors and international organizations will stop cooperating," she said.
Ukraine strengthened the central bank's powers in 2015 as a condition of aid from the IMF, which has supported the government through conflict, a recession and a currency crash since Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The incoming president said after meeting banks on Tuesday he aimed to maintain financial stability by cooperating with the IMF and maintaining the central bank's independence.
Kolomoisky declined comment. A government spokesman did not immediately provide comment.
($1 = 26.3400 hryvnias) (Writing by Matthias Williams Editing by Edmund Blair)