Italian banks ready to fund Parmalat rescue: sources

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Three Italian banks are ready to support an alliance of companies taking a stake in global dairy group Parmalat to block French cheesemaker Lactalis from gaining control, banking sources said Friday.

Parmalat's board on Friday decided to postpone the company's annual general shareholders meeting from mid-April to the end of June, as allowed by a special government decree, to provide time to mount a defense against Lactalis.

Intesa Sanpaolo, Mediobanca and UniCredit have sent a letter to Parmalat saying that they are willing to support an Italian bid but not buy shares themselves directly in the dairy company, banking sources told AFP.

Lactalis, the world's largest cheese maker, took a 29 percent stake in Parmalat last month despite the government warning it would take measures to keep the dairy group in Italian hands.

The stake makes it the single biggest shareholder in Parmalat. The French company has said it does not plan to raise its stake to 30 percent, which would oblige it make an offer to buy up all the shares from other shareholders.

Parmalat grew into a global dairy leader before collapsing in 2003 due to financial fraud by its founder Calisto Tanzi in a scandal that was dubbed "Europe's Enron."

It is still active around the globe and generated 4.3 billion euros ($6 billion) in revenues in 2010.

On Thursday, the government agreed that the state could take stakes in strategically important companies to protect them from foreign takeovers, and would create a special fund to do so.

Ferrero, the maker of Nutella and Kinder chocolate eggs, has expressed interest in joining an alliance of Italian companies to invest in Parmalat but has still not made a final decision, according to sources.

Granarolo, Italy's largest dairy company, has also expressed interest.

Intesa Sanpaolo already holds a 2.4 percent stake in Parmalat.

An Italian government investment bank could also take part.

Lactalis' entry into Parmalat came in the wake of a buying binge by French companies in Italy.

Luxury group LVMH has taken control of jeweller Bulgari and AirFrance-KLM has held a 25 percent stake in Alitalia since 2009.

State-controled EDF, which has a controlling stake in Italian power company Edison, is currently embroiled in a struggle to install one of its executives as head of the company.

© 2011 AFP

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