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INTERVIEW-Rio expects Simandou deal with Guinea by early 2014 - CEO

Stanley Carvalho and Regan Doherty
Sunday, 24 Nov 2013 | 6:37 AM ET

* Rio CEO hopes Guinea assembly to agree deal by early 2014

* Chinalco president says confident about giant project

* Simandou among world's largest untapped iron ore deposits

ABU DHABI, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Rio Tinto expects to agree a settlement with Guinea on the southern part of the Simandou iron ore deposit by the end of this year or early in 2014, its chief executive told Reuters on Sunday.

Rio Tinto was ousted in 2008 from the northern half of Simandou - one of the world's largest untapped deposits of iron ore - by the government of former President Lansana Conte, which accused the company of moving too slowly in developing it.

The new government of President Alpha Conde settled differences in 2011 and set a date of 2015 for production.

However, development of the mine is being slowed while Rio seeks a deal with the government for a legal framework to underpin the multi-billion dollar project.

Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh told Reuters he had met Conde twice recently and was very pleased with the discussions.

"We are making good progress, the government has appointed a new legal firm, a Canadian firm," Walsh said on the sidelines of a Guinea investors conference in Abu Dhabi.

"I think we are aligned with resolving the details of the framework, so that the project can proceed. We are hoping this will be approved by the national assembly late this year or early next year."

Rio Tinto is also in discussions with a range of international partners and banks on infrastructure, which needs huge investments, he said.

The development of Rio's half of Simandou requires billions to be spent on infrastructure including rail, roads and a port.

"The key issue is to have the investment framework completed so that we can provide the basis for the agreements with these institutions and the infrastructure consortium," he said.

The head of Rio's diamonds and minerals division, Alan Davies, said in September he expected production would slip to at least 2018.

CHINALCO CONFIDENT IN GUINEA

Chinalco, China's biggest mining company, has invested $1.85 billion in the Simandou project. It leads a Chinese consortium which bought a 44.65 percent state from Rio in 2012.

"We have the confidence to push forward the Simandou project and make this project come to fruition," Xiong Weiping, Chinalco's president, said in a panel discussion at the conference. "We will continue to invest in Guinea's mining sector. We have confidence".

Guinea hopes the two-day conference will produce a multi-billion dollar pledge from multilateral lenders, governments and investors to help develop the West African country's economy, according to an official involved in preparing it.

The development of the northern half of Simandou is being held back by a dispute with BSG Resources (BSGR), the mining arm of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz's empire. Guinea accuses the company of bribing officials to win the northern half of Simandou in 2008.

BSGR has denied the allegations of corruption. The government has appointed a committee to review the award of mining licences. Conde has said that reissuing mining licences could fetch Guinea $2.5 billion to $3 billion.

Rio Tinto has in the past said it could be interested in the northern half of Simandou if it was put up for tender. Asked if there had been any approaches, Walsh said it was too early to know what is happening there.

The company is facing challenges in Mongolia where it has a big stake in the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine but Walsh seemed optimistic.

"There are good discussions with Mongolia, these are nation-building projects and the government recognises that," he said, adding they are focused on resolving problems to enable the development of an underground phase of the mine.

Rio has been divesting assets that it no longer considers core, including the coal operation in Australia. Walsh declined to confirm if Rio is seeking to divest its stake in Canadian iron ore producer IOC.

"If the value is there, we will see," he said.

(Reporting by Stanley Carvalho and Regan Doherty; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)