Friend of Saddam one step from buying north-east coal mine

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The Independent Online
THE OWNER of the last deep coal mine in north-east England has agreed to sell it to a businessman who lists President Saddam Hussein among his friends and has links with a Serbian war criminal.

RJB Mining announced the closure of Ellington Colliery, in the Northumbrian town of Ashington, last month. Now it says it has agreed the sale of the pit to the Italian businessman and politician Giovanni Di Stefano, although it is dependent on Mr Di Stefano being granted the same type of licence that RJB secured when it bought the pit five years ago. The Coal Authority needs to be assured that Mr Di Stefano has the money to continue operations at the colliery, where 485 jobs are at stake.

Mr Di Stefano, 44, who has links to the Serbian war criminal Zelkjo Raznatovic - known as Arkan - launched abortive bids to buy into Dundee and Celtic football clubs last year. The Scottish Premier League later investigated Mr Di Stefano, the general secretary of the Italian National Party.

Two weeks ago Mr Di Stefano contacted RJB Mining and offered to buy Ellington for a reported pounds 10m through his American-based company Sandhurst Assets Corporation. In making the bid he promised to increase the workforce to 510 and sell coal to new markets in Africa and Europe - including Yugoslavia, where he has strong business connections.

RJB's spokesman, Stuart Oliver, said yesterday: "We have reached an agreement paving the way for the formal sale of Ellington Colliery. We have agreed with Mr Di Stefano and his lawyers a 30-day period for the purchase of the mine. The assignment of the licence is a matter for the Coal Authority, and we will do everything we can to facilitate that."

Ian Lavery, secretary of the Northumberland branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, said: "I hope the Coal Authority will examine Mr Di Stefano's application and make a decision as soon as possible, bearing in mind the position [of] the men at Ellington Colliery."

RJB bought Ellington for pounds 84m and has blamed its closure, due next February, on geological problems with mining coal under the sea. It says it cannot justify further investment in difficult seams.