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Li Ka-shing, considered Asia's richest man, told Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom yesterday that he was considering buying the state-owned ports of Haifa and Ashdod.

Ka-shing, 72, who deals in property, ports, telecoms and retail, is the president of the Cheung Kong Holdings concern, through which he also part owns the Hutchison Whampoa conglomerate.

The Asian tycoon met with Shalom yesterday during the minister's visit to China. He told Shalom that when the ports come up for sale - as part of the Finance Ministry's plans for reforming the sector - he would consider buying one or two of them. Ka-shing stressed his companies' broad international experience in ports.

The billionaire also told Shalom that the Israeli government should not slash the cell phone operators' interconnection charges. Ka-shing's Hutchison Whampoa group owns Partner, which is the major shareholder of the Orange cell phone operator in Israel.

Shalom responded that any changes in the sector would be done in the interests of the consumer. Nevertheless, he promised to pass Ka-shing's comments on to those dealing with the issue, particularly Communications Minister Ehud Olmert and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Ka-shing also called on the minister to reduce the state's overregulation of industry, which hampered investing in the Israeli economy. Having said that, he added that he considered Israel a great challenge for investors and he would continue to invest in the country. So far, his corporation has invested some $1.6 billion in Israel and he added that Watsons, another subsidiary in the Hutchison group, was exploring opening a chain of cosmetic stores in the country.