DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ryanair said it was prepared to sell its stake in rival Aer Lingus in a bid to appease a UK anti-competition probe, a move analysts said was an apparent gambit to avoid a forced sell-down.
Europe's biggest budget airline said in a statement it would unconditionally sell its 29 percent shareholding to an EU airline that makes an offer to buy out Aer Lingus.
It described the move as a remedy to appease the UK Competition Commission, which said in June the stake could obstruct Aer Lingus from merging to stay competitive.
Ryanair has held the stake for more than six years and has itself made several failed takeover bids for the former Irish flag carrier.
The Competition Commission is due to rule on a possible forced sale of the stake in September.
Analysts said the move did not necessarily mean Ryanair was ready to give up its shareholding, which Aer Lingus has said gives it undue influence over a rival in a key market.
"This changes nothing as there are no obvious buyers," said Donal O'Neill an analyst at Goodbody Stockbrokers.
"This will form the basis of an appeal" against a likely Competition Commission decision to force a sale, buying Ryanair time, he said.
Any appeal could scare off other possible strategic investors in Aer Lingus and frustrate the Irish government's efforts to divest its 25 percent stake to cut its debt.
Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by David Holmes and Louise Heavens