Belize to sell phone firm to UK's Ashcroft, again


Belmopan, March 31, 2006

Belize has buried the hatchet with British magnate Michael Ashcroft and will re-sell to him a majority stake in the country's national phone company, Prime Minister Said Musa said on Thursday.

After initially selling state phone operator Belize Telecommunications Ltd, or BTL, to Ashcroft, the government forced him to sell back most of his shares in 2003 because of sharp price increases and other disputes.

Now, after a legal battle with a US investor, the Central American country again is selling BTL to Ashcroft, who was once treasurer of Britain's Conservative Party and Belize's former representative to the United Nations.

"We had taken him to arbitration court and there was a settlement in terms of what taxes he owed," said Musa during an interview in his office in the capital. "Later on we sat down with him and got him to agree to buy back his shares."

Mismanagement and chaos surrounding the privatisation of BTL pushed telephone workers to strike last year, sabotaging phone lines and leaving Belize cut off from the outside world.

Musa said Ashcroft and the government have now worked out a part ownership deal that will include workers in order to calm tension between BTL and the union.

Ashcroft, a lord and the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, is one of Britain's richest men.

He had resigned as treasurer of the party in 2001 in a row over his business activities in Belize, a former British colony.

After taking control in the phone company from Ashcroft in 2003, the government then sold it to South Florida-based Innovative Communication Corp for nearly $90 million, only to seize it again, saying the US company missed a debt payment.

A US court ruled Belize did not have the right to take BTL back from ICC, but last week reversed its decision, freeing Belize to do what it likes with the phone company.

As part of the original contract to sell BTL to ICC, the government had agreed that any disputes would be settled in a US court.