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F. Hoffman La Roche, BASF and Rhone-Poulenc are close to settling a class-action antitrust lawsuit that accused the world's three largest vitamin makers of a massive price-fixing conspiracy, a source said. Lawyers for both sides are still discussing details and the talks could yet break down, but a settlement in the range of $850 million is being negotiated. That sum would resolve the claims of more than 20 corporate customers, such as animal feed suppliers, that bought bulk vitamins from the three companies at inflated prices in the past decade. The negotiations, which will resume tomorrow, are being conducted at the D.C. law offices of Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll. Last month, the three companies pleaded guilty to Justice Department price-fixing allegations and agreed to record-setting criminal fines.

Allstate agreed to buy the auto and homeowners business of CNA, the insurance unit of CNA Financial, in a complex transaction valued at $1.2 billion in an effort to boost market reach through CNA's network of 3,800 independent agents. Allstate, which currently insures one in every eight autos and homes in the country, said the move will more than double its total annual premium revenue from the independent agent channel to about $3 billion.

Motorola, the world's No. 2 maker of cellular phones, will spend $1 billion in a 10-year venture with Sun Microsystems to make equipment for high-speed wireless computer networks. Motorola will buy software and computer hardware from Sun, the No. 4 maker of server computers. Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola will supply customized computer chips and cards. The companies plan to make and sell equipment that uses "Internet protocol" technology to let voice, data and video travel on a single network.

AT&T announced a program that will allow small businesses to pay a flat monthly rate for wireless service for up to five to 50 users and will include unlimited air time to as many as five land-line numbers. The calling plan, called Group Calling, will target mobile workers such as dispatchers and contractors, thereby competing directly with Nextel Communications of Reston, which targets similar business customers.

BellSouth is considering buying Qwest Communications, in which it holds a 10 percent stake, or boosting its holding. The local phone company, which serves nine southeastern states, could even take a controlling position in Denver-based Qwest but is restricted from providing long-distance services and isn't expected to get regulatory approval to do so for a year.

E-Trade Group will draw on $950 million in cash and investments to deploy new technology, open its online trading business in the United Kingdom this month and make more acquisitions. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company, which plans to buy online bank Telebanc Financial for $1.8 billion in stock, is following a pattern among online brokers of adding services other than stock trading and expanding overseas as a way to reduce their dependence on volatile U.S. equity markets.

Rival cigarette companies asked a federal judge to halt a Philip Morris marketing campaign that they say violates antitrust laws. The Marlboro maker's "Retailer Leaders" program, which provides discounts to stores that prominently display its brands, could give it control of two-thirds of the U.S. cigarette market if allowed to continue, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Lorillard Tobacco Co., and Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. said in requesting a preliminary injunction until their lawsuit against the program goes to trial.

Carry-on coffee got clearance for takeoff from the Federal Aviation Administration, after an Alaska Airlines flight attendant complained that an FAA inspector was forcing the airline to collect coffee cups that passengers had brought on board with them out of concern that passengers could be splashed with hot liquid. FAA inspectors in other regions had no such rule, although in general, the FAA requires passengers to put items in overhead compartments or under the seat in front of them before takeoff and landing.


Cable & Wireless, the United Kingdom's second-largest phone company, won a bidding contest for International Digital Communications, Japan's second-biggest international phone company, paving the way for more foreign investors to target Japan. Passing over an offer from Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, the world's biggest phone company, Toyota and Itochu, each with 17.7 percent of IDC, accepted the C&W bid of $578 million. That will give C&W, which already owns 17.7 percent of IDC, 53.1 percent.


Gucci Group, the Italian fashion company teaming with Pinault- Printemps-Redoute to form the world's third-biggest luxury products group, said first-quarter profit rose 49 percent, exaggerated by interest income from a cash injection made by the new French partner. Net income rose to $60.2 million in the quarter from a restated $40.5 million.


Teleglobe Communications of Reston is set to announce it will expand its fiber-optic video network to three cities, including Washington, which are hubs for video production and news gathering. Broadcasters, such as the BBC, will use the network to transmit live feeds from the Washington area. Teleglobe recently announced it would spend $5 billion to build its GlobeSystem, an Internet, voice, data and video network.