Australian miners Aston Resources and Whitehaven Coal announced they will merge to form the nation\'s largest listed independent coal company, worth Aus$5.10 billion (US$5.18 billion). Under the deal, valued at Aus$3 billion, Aston shareholders will receive 1.89 Whitehaven shares per Aston share, and majority owner Tinkler Group said it intended to vote in favour of the merger. Billionaire mining magnate and Aston chairman Nathan Tinkler recommended shareholders approve the deal, which has the backing of both firms\' boards, describing it as an \"important milestone\". \"The merger represents the next phase in Aston\'s growth, providing shareholders with exposure to a larger and more diversified portfolio of coal mines, projects and exploration opportunities,\" Tinkler said in a statement, released on Monday. \"I believe the merged entity will represent an extremely attractive investment of scale in the rapidly consolidating Australian listed coal sector and is positioned to deliver substantial synergy benefits to shareholders.\" Whitehaven put itself on the market in October 2010 but abandoned the sale bid in May, saying no \"sufficiently attractive\" offer had been made from interested Indian and Chinese parties including Yanzhou Coal. Whitehaven chairman John Conde described the Aston merger as a \"transformative and exciting transaction\" that would capitalise on the positive long-term prospects for Australian coal exports. \"The merged entity becomes one of Australia\'s leading independent coal producers with a high-quality portfolio of producing mines, major development projects and attractive exploration assets,\" Conde said. Whitehaven will pay a special 50 cent dividend to its shareholders immediately prior to the merger\'s implementation. The companies, which both operate in the Gunnedah Basin of northwestern New South Wales state, said their newly merged firm would be the nation\'s largest independent coal company listed on the Australian stock exchange. Separately, Whitehaven said it had also agreed to acquire unlisted coal explorer Boardwalk Resources, contingent on the Aston merger going ahead. Australia\'s coal industry is dominated by major global players BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Xstrata, but smaller firms are being targeted as competition for resources is stoked by rapid industrialisation in China and India. US-based Peabody Energy, the world\'s largest private coal miner, snapped up Australia\'s Macarthur Coal last month in a deal worth almost $Aus5.0 billion.