Libya still in race to buy stricken French refinery
* Libyan Investment Authority chairman says still mulling offer
* French PM's office confirms Libya has signed confidentiality agreement
By Muriel Boselli and Ali Shuaib
PARIS/TRIPOLI, Nov 28 (Reuters) - Libya has not withdrawn its bid to buy France's troubled Petit-Couronne oil refinery, the French government and the Libyan sovereign fund said on Wednesday, dispelling contradictory comments on the bid by the authorities in Paris.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France Inter radio early on Wednesday that Libya was no longer interested in buying the refinery owned by insolvent Swiss refiner Petroplus.
Reacting to Fabius's comments, Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg told Reuters this was not true.
"The Libyans have signed a confidentiality agreement yesterday," Montebourg said at an energy conference. "This does not mean they will buy but they are studying (the purchase)," he added.
The French Prime Minister's office confirmed to Reuters a confidentiality agreement had been signed with the Libyan fund.
"The minister has received a letter of intent from the Libyan fund and received yesterday some additional information. He is doing checks today on the validity of these intentions and additional information," Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the government spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
The French media reported this week the Libyan Investment Authority had withdrawn its bid to take over the refinery, the oldest in France, citing a report from Libya's LANA news agency.
The chairman of the Libyan Investment Authority, Mohsen Derregia, who told Reuters last week they had started due diligence to invest in the refinery and would send a team to France to evaluate the investment opportunity, also confirmed on Wednesday it was still mulling an offer.
"We never said we are buying the refinery. Our team are still studying the project, they will give us the result and then we will make the decision whether to invest or not. As we said in our statement, we will only invest in projects that are a benefit for Libya," Derregia told Reuters.
Montebourg said earlier this month he had received a non-binding letter of interest from Libya's sovereign wealth fund to buy the refinery, situated in Normandy, northern France.
The 470 workers at the 161,000 barrels-a-day Petit-Couronne refinery are in a race against time to find a new buyer, as an oil reprocessing deal with former owner Shell is due to stop mid-December.
Other bidders include NetOil, a firm led by Middle Eastern businessman Roger Tamraz, which submitted an improved offer after a court in Rouen in northern France rejected its initial bid on financial and technical grounds earlier this month.
The court has set a new deadline of Feb. 5, 2013 for interested parties to submit bids for the refinery and will review offers next week. (Additional reporting by John Irish, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Michel Rose, Julien Ponthus and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris; editing by James Jukwey)