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AIDS drug firms to hold news conference on Thursday

PRETORIA, South Africa (Reuters) -- The trade association representing 39 companies taking the South African government to court to prevent imports of cheaper generic AIDS drugs is to hold a news conference on Thursday, an industry official said.

Plans for the news conference increased expectations that the drug firms would announce a deal with Pretoria in which they would withdraw from the case.

A spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PMA) on Wednesday told Reuters the news conference was provisionally scheduled for 12:00 p.m. (1000 GMT) on April 19.

British charity group Oxfam earlier told Reuters that 37 of the 39 companies had already agreed to withdraw from the case and that only technical issues, including who would pay legal costs, had held up a court settlement.

The Pretoria Supreme Court on Wednesday postponed the case until 10 a.m. (0800 GMT) on Thursday.

"We requested the delay so common ground can be found for a settlement," PMA lawyer Fanie Cilliers said.

Companies involved in the case include GlaxoSmithKline,the world's largest supplier of HIV/AIDS medicines. Others are U.S. firms Merck & Co and Bristol-Myers Squibb, Swiss group Roche and unlisted German group Boehringer Ingelheim.

AIDS activists and aid organizations have accused the firms of putting profits ahead of the lives of the 25 million Africans living with HIV-AIDS.

The case is seen as a landmark decision in the struggle by the developing world to get access to cheap and sustainable supplies of drugs.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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