Zaire offers Sabena stake in new airline

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Herman De Wulf/BRUSSELS

THE ZAIRE Government has offered Sabena a 51% stake in a new airline being formed to take over from defunct Air Zaire. The proposal was formulated during a visit by a Sabena delegation to the Zaire capital Kinshasa.

The proposal does not come as a surprise, as Sabena has been known to be interested in re-establishing the domestic routes in Zaire, which it had to drop in 1960 when the country attained independence from Belgium.

The move follows a Brussels court ruling on 12 June which declared Air Zaire bankrupt, owing BFr1.5 billion ($50 million) in unpaid bills. Sabena is among the airline's creditors.

Zaire President Seseko Mobutu has protested, saying that a Belgian court had no right to declare a Zairean firm bankrupt, and threatened to close the Sabena office in Kinshasa in reprisal.

Peace was restored when Belgium offered Air Zaire's landing rights to Scibe Airlift, a private Zairean airline owned by a member of Mobutu's family. The Court of Appeal in Brussels will rule on the earlier decision on 21 September.

Although the services to Zaire, supporting a high level of full-fare business traffic, are very lucrative for Sabena, its evaluation of Mobutu's offer will be tempered by two main considerations, which will influence the final decision.

One consideration is the effect of a law, which says that all local earnings will have to be invested in property in Zaire, while the other is the frequent political unrest. Sabena has often suffered from withdrawal of landing rights whenever the climate between Brussels and Kinshasa has plummeted.

Sabena says that it intends to evaluate the proposal, but adds that, its present, more urgent priorities lie in establishing synergies with new partner Swissair.