Friday, January 12, 2007

Reliance Comm begins due diligence on Hutch Essar

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Reliance Communications began due diligence on Hutchison Essar on Thursday and British rival Vodafone sounded out potential bid partners as the contest for India's No. 4 mobile carrier moved up a gear.

A day after Vodafone Group Plc Chief Executive Arun Sarin met key ministers in New Delhi, Reliance Communications Ltd. Chairman Anil Ambani was there paying a visit to the finance minister, although he did not disclose what they discussed.

"A team of our auditors are in Hutch's office right now," a Reliance Communications source told Reuters. A spokesman for the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, which controls the telecom operator, confirmed due diligence had begun.

Reliance Communications, India's second-largest mobile carrier, and Vodafone, the world's biggest carrier outside China, are both keen to win control of Hutchison Essar, which has 16 percent of the Indian market and is valued by brokers at up to $20 billion.

Vodafone, which began due diligence earlier this week, said on Wednesday it was unlikely to table a formal offer until February. Sarin, still in Delhi on Thursday, was reported by news channel CNBC TV18 as saying the UK firm would not "go overboard" with a bid.

Hutchison Essar is 67 percent owned by Hong Kong's Hutchison Telecommunications International Ltd. and 33 percent controlled by India's Essar group.

As a foreign company, Vodafone can only buy up to 74 percent in an Indian mobile phone operator. Sarin was quoted as saying he was talking to several partners, while the Ruias, who control the Essar group, may be natural partners.

Another Indian conglomerate, the Hinduja group, has also expressed interest in a controlling stake, while Essar itself is reported to want to buy the part it does not own.

India is the fastest-growing major mobile phone market in the world and has at least 147 million mobile users.

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