CORRECTED: Afghan minister vows no corruption over mineral riches

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Afghanistan's mines minister vowed Friday total transparency in the awarding of contracts to exploit vast mineral wealth that could net the war-torn country 3.5 billion dollars a year by 2015.

Wahidullah Shahrani, in London to woo foreign investment in the Hajigak iron ore deposit in the mountains west of Kabul, told reporters the government had taken steps to clean up its reputation for corruption.

It was committed to global mining standards and any revenue would be verified by independent international auditors "to help the government to achieve and to attain the highest degree of transparency", he said.

Shahrani estimated that revenues from mineral, oil and gas reserves -- including 1.6 billion barrels of oil in the Afghan-Tajik Basin -- could wean Afghanistan off aid by 2015.

"After 15 years, the revenue to the government treasury should be 3.5 billion dollars each year," he said.

The minister added: "That will be the time when Afghanistan will be declared a self-sufficient country in meeting all of its expenditure."

President Hamid Karzai said in January that the deposits could help one of the world's most impoverished nations become one of the richest, based on preliminary findings of the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

A recent study by US geologists found Afghanistan had reserves of valuable minerals, including lithium, iron, gold, niobium, mercury and cobalt, on a larger scale than previously believed, worth about a trillion dollars.

The Afghan government said this was a "very conservative estimate" and put the number at up to three trillion dollars.

Shahrani said Friday he had been in talks with oil giants Total and ENI as well as Canadian firm Heritage Oil about exploration deals in Afghanistan and the mood among foreign investors generally was "very positive".

Amid concerns about security in Afghanistan, the mines minister said the government had provided 1,500 Afghan security officials to protect the Aynak copper mine run by the Chinese firm MCC.

He also said Kabul had cleaned up its act since allegations of corruption over the awarding of the Chinese contract caused his predecessor Mohammad Ibrahim Adel to be dropped from the cabinet in February.

"There are some allegations that have been published in the media. But we have not been able to come up with some evidence," he told the BBC.

He stressed that Karzai's government was working with the World Bank, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the International Advisory Council to ensure openness.

The mineral wealth of Afghanistan has not yet been exploited because the country has been mired in conflict for three decades, and is today embroiled in an insurgency by Islamist militants led by the Taliban.

© 2010 AFP

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