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Thu 27 Dec 2007 11:14 AM

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Qtel joins sharks circling Lebanese telcos

Qatari operator will bid for a stake in either Alfa or MTC in gov't auction, executive says.

Qatar Telecommunications Company (Qtel) said on Wednesday it would bid for a stake in one of two Lebanese mobile phone firms as part of the former monopoly operator's plans to expand in the Middle East and Asia.

Lebanon expects to sell majority stakes in Alfa and MTC Touch in February and offer the rest to the public to raise as much as $7 billion, the country's telecommunications minister said in October.

"We will bid," said Adel Al-Mutawa, Qtel's executive director for group communications. When asked which company Qtel would bid for, Al-Mutawa said, "We are still evaluating."

"We're looking at any opportunities for expansion in MENA and Asia and Lebanon is going to be the first potential market in the region," he said, declining to give more details.

UAE operator Etisalat had said on Monday it was also considering a bid to take over one of the firms.

Lebanon wants to use the funds to pay off huge public debts of about $41 billion, or 180% of gross domestic product, telecommunications minister Marwan Hamadeh said in October.

Any winning bid would have to get final approval from the country's president, he has said.

Lebanon's Western-backed ruling coalition and the pro-Syrian Hezbollah-led opposition have been locked in a power-sharing dispute, virtually paralysing the country.

"Political stability has a very important role in the [bidding] process," Al-Mutawa said.

Qtel chief executive Nasser Marafih told Reuters this month the firm planned more acquisitions after its $3.72 billion purchase of Kuwaiti operator National Mobile Telecommunications Company (Wataniya) in March.

It was mulling sales of shares in Qatar, depositary receipts in London or bonds as funding options, he said.

The firm, which operates in 16 markets, lost its telecom monopoly this month after the oil and gas producer awarded a group led by Britain's Vodafone Group a second mobile phone licence.

Shares of Qtel, which makes 76% of its profit in Qatar, fell 1.05% on Wednesday. (Reuters)

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