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Royal Dutch/Shell and Total SA were refusing to comment on a published report sweeping the oil industry that the former has conceded it's vulnerable to - and is bracing for - a takeover attempt. London's Observer newspaper acknowledged Sunday it had "no indication that [Shell] board members or advisers have spoken about" a merger. But it said, "Insiders ... fear Total will launch a raid." The report also quoted an industry analyst who said, "On paper, it's a fit." Total, based in Courbevoie, France, has a market value smaller than Shell - $125 billion versus $171 billion - but is considered to be the only oil company capable of winning the OK from regulators for a merger. Moreover, Shell still is experiencing one of the most difficult periods in its history, characterized by the furor involving overestimation of its oil and natural gas reserves, which has resulted in investigations by regulatory authorities and the resignations of various senior executives. Last week, the Financial Times reported that the company's British and Dutch supervisory boards would merge as part of a wide-ranging restructuring effort set in motion by the scandal. Meanwhile, Shell and state officials in California agreed late last week to delay the planned closure of an aging refinery in Bakersfield from Oct. 1 to next March 31, allowing six more months to find a buyer. The refinery produces 2 percent of the state's gasoline.

In a deal valued at $1.7 billion in cash, stock, and assumed debt, rural hospital operator Province Healthcare Co. of Brentwood, Tenn., agreed to be acquired by crosstown rival LifePoint Hospitals Inc. Province and its Brim Healthcare subsidiary operate or provide management services for 54 hospitals in more than a dozen states. LifePoint operates 30 hospitals.

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The Plaza, a New York landmark and one of the world's most famous hotels, is being sold to Elad Properties, a private real estate company in the city, for $675 million, reports said. The five-star Fifth Avenue property, featured in such hit movies as "Plaza Suite," "North by Northwest," "The Great Gatsby," "The Way We Were," "Crocodile Dundee," and "Home Alone II," currently is co-owned by a British group and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who purchased it from Donald Trump in 1995 for $324 million. With tourism off since Sept. 11, 2001, but apartment rents soaring, the 19-story building could be ripe for conversion to luxury residences, analysts said.


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