UPDATE 1-UK's Sainsbury's set to win Home Retail as Steinhoff withdraws

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LONDON, March 18 (Reuters) - Sainsbury’s, Britain’s second biggest supermarket, was given a clear run to buy Argos-owner Home Retail on Friday after rival suitor, the South African group Steinhoff International, withdrew from the process.

Under British takeover rules both companies had until 1700 GMT on Friday to make a firm offer for Home Retail.

“Steinhoff now confirms that it does not intend to make an offer for Home Retail,” it said.

Its statement came at the same time as Steinhoff’s French unit Conforama agreed a deal to buy French electricals retailer Darty.

Shares in Home Retail had soared more than 80 percent since news of a possible bid from Sainsbury’s emerged on Jan. 5. But they were down 11 percent at 162 pence at 1557 GMT, valuing the business at 1.3 billion pounds, after hopes of a bidding war slipped away.

Sainsbury’s made a cash and shares proposal last month worth 173.2 pence at Sainsbury’s closing share price on Thursday, slightly below Frankfurt-listed Steinhoff’s later cash proposal of 175 pence.

Sainsbury’s is still to make a firm offer and has not yet responded to Steinhoff’s withdrawal.

Shares in Sainsbury’s were down 3.6 percent at 271.6 pence.

When it unveiled its first takeover proposal on Feb. 2, Sainsbury’s said it wanted to buy Argos to accelerate its growth by creating the country’s largest general merchandise retail business and by expanding its online presence.

Reporting by James Davey, editing by Kate Holton