UPDATE 1-Gabon and BHP Billiton have Belinga deal-govt official

Fri Feb 3, 2012 4:41pm EST

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LIBREVILLE Feb 3 (Reuters) - Gabon and mining firm BHP Billiton have reached a deal over the Belinga iron ore concession in Gabon after it was taken off China's CMEC, a government official from the Central African nation's government told Reuters on Friday.

CMEC secured rights to the Belinga with a 2007 deal. But the project was shrouded in controversy and stalled first over concerns raised about environmental impact of the project and then over whether CMEC would be able to deliver.

"An agreement has already been reached between the Gabonese government and BHP Billiton over the exploitation of the Belinga iron ore mine by this group (BHP) after the eviction of China's COMIBEL (the local unit of CMEC)," Sosthene Nguema Nguema, a member of Gabonese government delegation in charge of overseeing the Belinga project, said.

"All that remains is for this an official agreement to be signed by the two parties," Nguema added, without giving any further details over the timing or value of the deal.

BHP Billiton declined to comment. But Nguema said that the license had been taken from CMEC in December as the firm did not have sufficient expertise to mine the resource.

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

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