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THE NEVERENDING AUCTION: QWEST AGAIN HIKES MCI BID

Qwest Communications submitted another higher offer for MCI Inc. Thursday, increasing its cash-and-stock bid to $9.74 billion, about 30 percent higher than the buyout deal that MCI has accepted from Verizon Communications Inc.

Qwest's latest bid of $30 a share injects fresh uncertainty into a deal in which MCI directors -- who have twice embraced Verizon over Qwest -- could now be forced to accept a far higher offer.

The Qwest bid consists of $16 a share in cash -- about $2.50 higher than the previous offer -- using $800 million in equity commitments from MCI shareholders, Qwest CEO and Chairman Dick Notebaert said in a statement.

The remaining $14 would be paid in Qwest stock, based on an exchange ratio of 3.373 Qwest shares per MCI share. A guarantee to protect Qwest's stock price remained in place.

It also includes an additional $1 billion in committed financing to ease concerns about whether the combined company would have the financial resources to compete, Notebaert said in a letter to MCI's board.

The latest bid, described as Qwest's "best and final," will be withdrawn if it is not declared superior and Verizon is not notified by 3 p.m. Saturday, he said.

The MCI board two weeks ago accepted a $7.5 billion cash-and-stock offer from Verizon, valued at $23.10 per share, up from $20.75 under the original agreement those companies reached in mid-February.

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