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Air Afrique appeals to Air France

SIMON WARBURTON / PARIS

Urgency of struggling carrier's plight has sent national presidents to Paris in a bid to save it from liquidation

Struggling carrier Air Afrique is appealing to Air France to agree to a tighter alliance to save the heavily-indebted airline. Debts at the airline now amount to some Fr1.8 billion ($237 million).

A crisis meeting of the majority of the eleven member states with a stake in Air Afrique was held in the Cote d'Ivoire capital of Abidjan. It called for the French flag carrier to increase its co-operation with the African airline in a bid to save it from financial oblivion.

The urgency of the situation was emphasised by the presidents of Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal who late last week travelled to Paris for discussions with Air France, which is already a shareholder. At the same time the World Bank, which is acting in an advisory capacity, says it is ready to help with implementing any of the social costs arising from a restructuring of the company.

The seriousness of Air Afrique's position was reflected in the seniority of those attending the Abidjan meeting - four heads of state from Benin, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire and Sengal, three prime ministers and a succession of high-ranking ministers. Only the Central African Republic abstained due to its on-going civil war, itself indicative of the problems facing the carrier.

Rumours have been sweeping the 4,000 employees that the airline faces imminent liquidation but Air Afrique says: "The meeting between the heads of state resulted in them calling for Air Afrique not to be liquidated and [undisclosed] measures have been taken to recapitalise the company."

The airline says: "The participants in the meeting also said that further and stronger co-operation between the airline and Air France would be necessary," although its spokesperson declined to specify the nature of any new partnership.

Some of the principal decisions emanating from the Abidjan meeting call for: "Replacement of the [current] financial and accounting system with an internationally renowned company; seeking a technical and commercial partner, especially Air France; negotiating with bankers to secure a financial moratorium and recapitalising the airline."

The World Bank says that the organisation "has already funded the financial consultants SH&E to provide extensive analysis of Air Afrique's situation" although it adds that internal statutes preclude them from providing any working capital.

Any recapitalisation equity "has to come from the member states" says the bank, "but as for liquidating the airline, that is not something we recommend. We support the privatisation of Air Afrique as they have a huge market. If it disappears, it will create an enormous vacuum."

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