All Bar One and O'Neills pubs firm Mitchells & Butlers said last night that "a number" of buyers were looking at a possible takeover of the business.

The Birmingham pubs operator said adviser Citi had received "preliminary and tentative expressions of interest from a number of parties".

Confirmation of the potential interest sent shares in Mitchells & Butlers soaring almost 17 per cent, giving the company a stock market value of around £1.9 billion.

The UK's biggest managed pubs operator has been under pressure after a disastrous bet on interest rates cost the company £274 million and its finance director resigned this week.

The company, which operates around 2,000 pubs, said there had been no talks so far and added that there was "no certainty that any will take place".

Mitchells faces shareholders today in London.

The challenges of the English smoking ban and a tougher outlook for consumer spending have been compounded by a hedge against rising interest rates taken out as part of a shelved £4.5 billion property deal with entrepreneur and major shareholder Robert Tchenguiz.

The group planned a debt-financed joint venture with Mr Tchenguiz including approximately 1,300 pubs and £240 million of rent. The interest rate hedge was to protect the new company against rising borrowing costs on the debt burden.

But potential investors pulled out following the credit crunch - bringing a halt to the plans - and leaving Mitchells & Butler with the costly and unwanted hedge as interest rates instead moved lower.

The group's share price has been hit hard and in December the group was relegated from the FTSE 100 Index.

As a result of the hedge losses, Mitchells said on Tuesday all executive directors, including the departed finance director will forego their 2007 bonuses.

The group also described current trading conditions as challenging but said it managed a "resilient" performance with like-for-like sales up 0.7 per cent in the 17 weeks to last Saturday.