"Vodafone Airtouch Plc (VOD.L) (VOD.N) has claimed an edge over British Telecommunications Plc (BT.L) in a battle for Spain's second biggest mobile operator Airtel by securing a $4 billion options deal for nearly 17 percent of Airtel.
"Vodafone -- which already has 21.7 percent of the Spanish company and is in the middle of a huge takeover bid for Germany's Mannesmann AG (MNNGn.DE) -- announced it had reached an agreement with three minority shareholders which gave them options to sell their 16.91 percent stake in Airtel to Vodafone.
"The minority shareholders involved were construction company Acciona (ANA.MC) and holding companies Corporacion Financiera Alba (ALB.MC) and Torreal.
"The deal, which could be all-stock and was announced late on Saturday, valued Airtel at 4 trillion pesetas ($24.22 billion).
"A Spanish newspaper reported the deal would soon be followed up by another decisive agreement under which Vodafone would buy a 30.45-percent stake of Airtel from Banco Santander Central Hispano (SCH.MC), giving it full control of the mobile operator.
"The newspaper, El Mundo, said Vodafone would also agree to buy 4.4 percent of Airtel owned by two Spanish savings banks. The ``final solution'' in the tussle for control of Airtel would be reached in two or three weeks, it said.
"Vodafone and BT have long wanted full control of Airtel. It has more than five million customers, second only to the mobile unit of dominant telecoms group Telefonica (TEF.MC), and has begun offering fixed-line and Internet services.
"In 1998, Airtel made a net profit of 2.78 billion pesetas ($16.83 million) on sales of 200 billion pesetas. Since then its number of users has more than doubled.
``We think the Spanish market is a key market and one of high growth in mobile telephony,'' said Julian Horn-Smith, chief executive of Vodafone.