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A helicopter crash has thwarted what would have been one of the largest Israeli business deals of the past few years - the planned sale of IKEA's Israeli franchise to British businessman Stephen Curtis, one of the owners of the Russian oil giant Yukos.

Curtis, who was appointed chairman of Yukos in July, was killed in a helicopter crash in Britain on March 4.

Albert Gnat, the Canadian businessman who owns 25 percent of IKEA Israel - and also serves as the representative of the international IKEA chain on the Israel's company's board - had agreed in principle a few weeks ago to sell 80 percent of his shares, or a 20 percent stake in the company, to Curtis.

Curtis then came to Israel to meet officials of the Co-Op cooperative association, which owns the other 75 percent, and details of the sale were supposed to be finalized shortly.

Curtis was also apparently negotiating to buy Co-Op's shares in IKEA, which would have given him control of 95 percent of the company.

A court ruling several months ago required Co-Op to sell off all its assets.

Gaon denies he's interestedSources close to IKEA said the person who interested Curtis in the deal was Benny Gaon, who is also said to be interested in acquiring control of IKEA himself. But Gaon has denied those reports.

IKEA Israel is considered one of the most successful retail businesses in the country, with sales of NIS 150 million in the first half of 2003 and net earnings of NIS 11 million, up 7 percent over the same period in 2002.

The accounting firm Kesselman and Kesselman recently valued the furniture and housewares retailer at NIS 20 million.

Since its opening in 2001, IKEA Israel has increased its sales by 50 percent, and it is credited with lowering the price of furniture in Israel by about 30 percent.