ReliaStar Financial Corp., the eighth-largest publicly held insurance company in the United States, said Friday that it is in discussions to be acquired.

While ReliaStar did not disclose the other party in the talks, speculation immediately focused on ING Groep NV, the Dutch financial services company that has made no secret of its intent to buy into the U.S. insurance market.

ING did not comment on the rumor.

In March, ING and WellPoint Health Networks Inc., of Thousand Oaks, Calif., made a $10.3 billion joint bid for Aetna Inc. In 1997, ING bought Equitable of Iowa Cos. for $2.6 billion.

Analysts have predicted that European financial institutions such as ING, ABN Amro NV and Amsterdam based Aegon NV will become formidable players in the U.S. insurance market. Their expertise in combining banking and insurance and their size could give them an advantage over many U.S. banking companies that might be considering similar moves.

ReliaStar, based in Minneapolis, sells insurance and investment products through its subsidiaries. It also has said in the past that it would likely eventually combine with a bank, which would provide a sales outlet for its insurance products. The company has $38.4 billion in assets under management and its subsidiaries have life insurance in force of $369.4 billion.

"They simply don't have enough size and scale in their businesses" to continue to operate independently, said Jeffrey Hopson, an equities analyst at A.G. Edwards in St. Louis.

In its brief statement disclosing the talks, ReliaStar said it did not intend to comment further until either reaching a definitive agreement or until the negotiations were terminated.

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