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Decision on Mercator Sale Postponed as Competition Watchdog Intervenes

Lasko/Ljubljana, 26 April (STA) - The supervisory board of Pivovarna Lasko was expected to decide Tuesday on how it will sell its 23.3% stake in retailer Mercator, but the session was suspended after the Competition Protection Office threw a spanner in the works just hours earlier by banning Lasko and five banks from disposing their Mercator stock.

The competition watchdog's decision, which affects Lasko and the banks NLB, NKBM, Abanka Vipa, Banka Celje, Gorenjska Banka and Banka Koper, refers to the 2009 AGM of Mercator at which Lasko and the banks acted in concert, the online edition of business daily Finance reported.

The decision comes just when Lasko was trying to decide whether to sell the stake alone or join a consortium of banks. If it joined the banks, a majority stake in Slovenia's no. 1 retailer would be put up for sale in an international call for bids.

The decision could spell trouble for Lasko, which is selling Mercator in order to pay off the huge mountain of debt. Media reports suggest the majority of Lasko's EUR 450m in loans are due at the end of June.

It was reported that the banks which are selling Mercator would extend the loans if Lasko joined the consortium.

Lasko had published a call for bids for its Mercator stock in early February, but it ran into problems when it emerged that the best bid came from Croatian group Agrokor, which owns several major food companies as well as Mercator's rival in the Balkans, Konzum.

Agrokor is believed to be interested in mounting a full takeover bid of Mercator, using Lasko's stake as a springboard.

The prospect of Mercator being acquired by Agrokor raised protests by Slovenian food firms, fearful that they would lose shelf space, and rekindled debates about whether it is in Slovenia's national interest to keep Mercator in Slovenian hands.

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