Gabon's Belinga deal in suspense

by Khephren Fanga

Gabon is still negotiating with its Chinese partner to develop the giant Belinga iron-ore deposit, a project key to diversifying the country's oil-reliant economy, but it will likely bring in other miners and could break up the vast concession.

Deputy Minister for the Economy Desire Guedon also said economic growth will slip to 7% this year, from 7.3% in 2012, and crude oil output will decline half of 1%.

Guedon, whose portfolio also includes employment, said that a recent deal with union leaders to end a strike of oil workers would not lead to the expulsion of thousands of foreign employees - as the union demanded.

"The (Belinga) negotiations are not finished. We haven't broken with them in the sense that we've told them to relinquish it," Guedon said of China's CMEC, which secured rights to the iron ore deposit in a 2007 deal.

"But we've asked them to agree to a revision of the shape of the dossier. They're still interested in the project. We haven't named our partners yet," he said.

The deal with CMEC was signed by the late president Omar Bongo, but his son and successor, Ali Bongo, called for a review of the agreement after he came to power in 2009.

The government has ordered a reassessment of the iron ore deposit, and the mines minister has said new partners may not be chosen until results are known in 2014.

"Belinga is vast. And it's not just iron. And that was one of the problems," Guedon said in an interview on Wednesday.

"Before, the mine was mainly linked to iron. However, we have since realised that there are other mines in this zone that do not necessarily fall within their area of expertise," he said.

The area of the concession has already been altered to exclude protected park lands that had originally been included, and Guedon said there was a possibility it could be broken up between several operators.

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