Italy’s Atlantia has approached Spanish rival Abertis about a potential tie-up that would create one of the largest toll-road and infrastructure groups in the world.

Trading in Abertis shares was suspended after it company issued a regulatory statement on Tuesday, saying that “Atlantia has expressed its interest in assessing a potential corporate transaction, the terms of which are yet unspecified”.

Before trading was suspended, Abertis shares rose 6.6 per cent to €16.30, giving the company a market capitalisation of €15.42bn.

News of the talks was first reported by Bloomberg.

Abertis manages more than 8,000 km of toll roads in 14 countries and is the leading operator in Spain, Brazil and Chile. For the full year 2016, the company reported earnings of €796m and sales of €4.94bn.

If the Atlantia bid is to succeed, the Italian group will almost certainly have to win the backing of Criteria, the industrial holding of the Barcelona-based Caixa group. Criteria owns 22 per cent of Abertis shares and has long played a key role in steering the infrastructure group. Salvador Alemany, the chairman of Abertis, is a trustee of the Caixa foundation, while Francisco Reynés, its chief executive, is a former managing director of the Criteria holding.

The Abertis board also has a notable Italian presence, with former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta joining the board as an independent director in November last year.

A bid for Abertis would mark the second attempt in just over a decade to unite the two companies. Abertis and Autostrade, the Italian toll road operator controlled by Atlantia, scrapped a planned €25bn cross-border merger in December 2006, bowing to what both companies said were insurmountable obstacles placed in the way of the transaction by Italy’s centre-left government at the time.

Atlantia – which is controlled by the Benetton family through their investment vehicle Edizione – operates 5,000km of toll motorways in Italy, Brazil, Chile, India and Poland. It also manages Fiumicino and Ciampino airports in Italy along with three airports in southern France. Its market capitalisation currently stands at €19.8bn.

At the end of 2016, Atlantia reported sales of €5.48bn and net earnings of €1.24bn.

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