European bank giant Fortis partially nationalized

Dutch-Belgian bank and insurance giant Fortis NV was given a $16.4 billion lifeline to avert insolvency as part of a wider bailout plan agreed to by Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, officials said Sunday.

Belgium's Prime Minister Yves Leterme said the bailout shows account holders and investors that Fortis will not be allowed to fall victim to the global credit crisis.

Leterme announced the deal after weekend talks between the three countries, European Union and national banking officials.

The deal will force the bank — which has headquarters in both Brussels and the Dutch city of Utrecht — to sell its stake in Dutch bank ABN Amro, which it partially took over last year. Fortis paid 24 billion euros for its share of ABN.

Fortis Chairman Maurice Lippens will be forced to resign and will be replaced by a candidate from outside the company, Leterme said.

"We have taken up our responsibility, we did not abandon" account holders, Leterme told reporters.

Under the bailout, Belgium will invest $6.88 billion and the Netherlands $5.86 billion in Fortis' banking operations in the two countries. In return, they each receive 49% ownership in those national arms of the bank.

Luxembourg will invest $3.6 billion in the bank's Luxembourg operations, also for a 49% stake.

The deal, orchestrated by the three neighboring countries and EU Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet, is meant to restore confidence in the bank before the reopening of markets on Monday after a tumultuous week in which Fortis' shares imploded.

Belgian officials also announced Sunday that they planned to offer better guarantees for all retail deposits at Fortis, the country's largest bank and largest private employer.

Fortis named its third chief executive officer in as many months Friday after insolvency fears caused the company's shares to tumble to 5.18 euros ($7.56), their lowest level in more than a decade. The shares have lost more than three-fourths of their value in the past year.

Fortis denies any imminent solvency problems, but it has been in trouble since it took part in a three-bank consortium last year that acquired ABN Amro in a $102.5 billion deal that was the largest takeover in the history of the banking industry.

AP Business Writer Toby Sterling contributed from Amsterdam

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