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Negotiations for a merger that would create the world's second-largest pharmaceutical company were begun by Novartis and Aventis, in part to try to head off a $53 billion hostile takeover attempt by a third force in their industry. Novartis, which is Swiss-owned, previously had pursued a merger with Aventis. But the effort was thwarted by the French government's preference for a tie-up between Aventis and Sanofi-Synthelabo AG, a smaller but fellow French drugmaker. Although the government has not changed that view, Novartis said it would negotiate with Aventis while taking into consideration "all legitimate concerns" such as the possible loss of French jobs that redundancy might cause. Aventis rejected the Sanofi- Synthelabo offer in January as too low and as risky for its stockholders. Pfizer of the US is the industry leader.

Under pressure, the chairman and chief executive officer of Computer Associates resigned Wednesday to try to bring an early end to the company's troubles. Sanjay Kumar will remain on the payroll, however, in a new post, chief software designer. The Islandia, N.Y., company is at the center of a federal investigation into accounting irregularities and securities fraud, and three senior executives have pleaded guilty to various criminal charges.

Volkswagen and two partners will pay $2.4 billion for LeasePlan, a fleet management service of Dutch banking giant ABN Amro, published reports said. LeasePlan has an inventory of more than 1 million vehicles and posted $229 million in net earnings last year. Volkswagen's partners in the deal are Mubadala Development Co., a state-owned enterprise in Dubai, and Olayan Group of Athens.

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In a move aimed at becoming the world's largest retail property group, Westfield Holdings Ltd. announced plans to merge its far-flung units into one. The company, based in Sydney, Australia, owns or has a financial stake in 123 shopping malls in its own country, Britain, New Zealand, and the US.

Troubled Baxter International, the world's largest maker of blood-disease therapies, said its restructuring efforts require closing some plasma collection centers and cutting as many as 4,000 jobs. Half of those affected work outside the US, the Deerfield, Ill., company said. Baxter has failed to meet earnings expectations for three consecutive quarters.

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