Business & Finance

Vodafone, the world's largest cellphone service provider, expects to beat Friday's deadline for bidding on AT&T Wireless, published reports said. Citing sources familiar with the situation, The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times said the offer would be in excess of $30 billion. Rival Cingular has submitted an informal bid for AT&T Wireless, and Nextel Communications is viewed as a potential suitor as well. Signs indicate that Japan's NTT DoCoMo has reconsidered entering the bidding and will opt against it, both newspapers said. Under US regulations, Vodafone would have to sell its 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless if it should emerge as the winning bidder.

Air France and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines won the OK from the US Justice Department and European Union regulators for their merger. But the latter said a separate alliance between Air France and Italy's Alitalia could not be approved without unspecified "improvements." The proposed Air France/KLM tieup would result in the world's largest carrier. But European Commission chief Mario Monti said the new partners will be required to give up 47 pairs of gates at their Paris and Amsterdam terminals.

Troubled supermarket giant Royal Ahold NV has put two of its US chains up for sale - a move that could fetch $1 billion to help in lowering its heavy debt, the Financial Times reported. The chains, Bi-Lo and Bruno's, operate 470 stores in Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, and had combined net sales of almost $5 billion last year. A year ago this month, Ahold admitted the first of a series of accounting irregularities that ultimately grew to about $1.2 billion. It since has sold off some assets in the US, South America, Spain, and Asia.

Unions representing 43,000 employees of Stop & Shop, one of the Northeast's largest supermarket chains, are expected to hold a strike vote Sunday if negotiations on a new contract produce no movement on the issue of healthcare benefits by then. Negotiations began last July, and the company has been seeking an increase in the amount employees contribute to their health insurance coverage - which union spokesmen say could cost $8-per- hour part-time employees as much as $25 a month. Stop & Shop operates 300 stores in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

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