Marsans hits back at Argentina over airline- report

BUENOS AIRES, July 11 Fri Jul 11, 2008 10:27am EDT

BUENOS AIRES, July 11 (Reuters) - Spanish travel firm Marsans, which controls airline Aerolineas Argentinas, has accused Argentina's government of trying to force it out of the company, a newspaper reported on Friday.

The center-left administration of President Cristina Fernandez asked a judge on Thursday to appoint an administrator at the airline in what was seen as a possible step toward a state takeover of the company.

Aerolineas, which is behind on June salary payments, is plagued by strikes and complaints about poor service. It also faces growing debt under state-controlled fares despite subsidized jet fuel.

Gerardo Diaz Ferran, a Spanish businessman who jointly controls Marsans, was quoted as telling Argentine daily La Nacion that the Argentine government was "not only driving us out of the company, it's doing something much more serious than excluding us." He declined to elaborate.

Earlier this year, Marsans reached a preliminary agreement to cut its stake in Aerolineas to 35 percent from 95 percent, including selling sizable shares to the government and an Argentine businessman. The state currently holds 5 percent.

However, Diaz Ferran told La Nacion that the government had failed to keep its end of the deal.

"We've accepted everything they asked us for ... they're the ones that aren't fulfilling (the accord) now," he was quoted as saying. "Our aim is to sit down and talk in order to make sure (these) commitments are fulfilled."

Analysts say Thursday's move by the government could signal another step toward what Argentine media dub the "Argentinization" of Aerolineas, meaning it could be bought by the state or by an investor considered an ally of Fernandez and her husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner.

Marsans bought Aerolineas in 2001 when the Argentine company was bankrupt. Aerolineas has 80 percent of the domestic flights in the country, and its main competitor is Chile's LAN Airlines LAN.SN (LFL.N). (Reporting by Helen Popper; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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