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Belgium turns up heat on Swissair over Sabena

Rik Daems announces the Belgian government's decision to sue Swissair Group at a Brussels press conference

(Keystone)

Swissair Group is under fire from all sides over its attempts to limit its exposure to the loss-making Belgian carrier, Sabena. Not only it is being sued by the Belgian government, its flights from Brussels airport have had to be suspended amid workers' protests.

Swissair Group's management was still reeling from the news that it was being sued by its Belgian partner, when workers at Brussels' airport decided to take matters into their own hands, and stopped a Swissair flight from taking off for Zurich.

The disruption later led to a suspension of all Swissair flights from Belgium - the carrier is now transporting passengers by road to Maastricht in the Netherlands, where they can board a flight.

The protest at Brussels airport was triggered after the Belgian government's announcement late on Tuesday that it would be taking "Swissair to court for breach of contract". The Belgian government, which owns 50.5 per cent of Sabena, accuses Swissair of reneging on a promise to accept financial responsibility for Sabena.

The charge stems from Swissair's attempts to extricate itself from a commitment to increase its stake in Sabena to 85 per cent - from 49.5 per cent at the moment.

The Belgian public enterprises minister, Rik Daems, said his government would take Swissair Group to the Brussels Commercial Court, to force Swissair to provide a loan or credit line of €529 million to enable the Belgian airline to meet its financial needs in 2001 and 2002. He added that Brussels would seek a further SFr540 million in damages.

Belgium's decision to begin legal proceedings came a day after it rejected Swissair's offer to inject extra cash into Sabena in return for freeing Swissair from its obligation to raise its stake in Sabena.

Daems described that offer as "blackmail", and rejected it out of hand. He confirmed an initial court hearing had already been scheduled for August 2.

Responding to the announcement from Brussels, Swissair Group spokesman Hans Klaus said the "proceedings of the Belgian government endanger the existence of Sabena".

Klaus also reiterated his airline's position that "there is no legal basis for Belgium's suit".

Sabena's chairman, Fred Chaffart, stepped up the war of words between Belgium and Switzerland by saying his airline would also "take any necessary legal steps to save the company."

Swissair, which lost SFr2.9 billion last year, has pledged to sever all ties with loss-making foreign carriers unless the companies involved can be turned around quickly.

Sabena has only turned a profit once in several decades.

swissinfo with agencies


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