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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three top executives of Sprint Nextel resigned from the board of its Clearwire Corp venture, stoking speculation it would pave the way for a wholesale deal or equity stake sale to T-Mobile USA.
Sprint said the resignations were only to comply with new developments in antitrust laws on director independence and was unrelated to any negotiations Clearwire might be having with potential investors.
But the news sent shares of Clearwire up 3 percent as investors bet the resignations would make it easier for Clearwire to do a deal with a company such as Sprint's rival T-Mobile USA, a venture of Deutsche Telekom AG.
The companies said on Thursday that Dan Hesse, chief executive of Sprint, Clearwire's majority owner, resigned from the venture's board on Sept 28 along with Sprint's strategy chief Keith Cowan and top networks executive Steven Elfman.
Sprint spokeswoman Cristi Allen said the decision was made only to comply with antitrust rules prohibiting independent, competing companies from having common directors or officers.
The move comes after Clearwire, which needs new funding to continue expanding a network it is building, said last week it was in talks with T-Mobile USA about a potential deal in which the No. 4 US mobile service could invest in Clearwire to rent space on its network at discount rates.
The resignations could be a sign Clearwire wants to appear more independent from Sprint to an outside investor such as
T-Mobile USA to , said Atlantic Equities analyst Chris Watts.
"People are interpreting this as paving the way for some kind of additional negotiations with T-Mobile USA, which has been talking to Clearwire and Lightsquared about its 4G wireless strategy," Watts said. Lightsquared is a private company that is setting itself up as a Clearwire rival.
T-Mobile spokesman Andreas Fuchs confirmed T-Mobile USA is looking at different options and that Clearwire was one of them. Clearwire declined comment on speculation related to the resignations but said the decision was made to address legal questions that had originally been raised by Clearwire.
The news comes amid speculation about tensions over strategy between Sprint and Clearwire, whose investors include cable providers such as Comcast, and technology companies Intel Corp and Google Inc.
Clearwire said the terms of the venture were unchanged and that Sprint has said it will reserve its right to nominate three more directors to replace Hesse, Cowan and Elfman in the next 90 days. Sprint has also appointed its general counsel Charles Wunsch as an observer to the Clearwire board.
Four of the seven directors appointed by Sprint to the 13-person Clearwire board will stay, including Frank Ianna who is a director in both Sprint and Clearwire.
But the resignations will still give Sprint less of a say in Clearwire's strategy.
"It lessens the voice Sprint has there," said Pacific Crest analyst Steve Clement.
Clearwire shares were up 18 cents, or 2.3 percent at $8.11 on the Nasdaq in afternoon trade. Sprint shares were up 2 cents at $4.62 on New York Stock Exchange.
Reporting by Sinead Carew. Editing by Derek Caney and Robert MacMillan