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INTERVIEW-Savannah Resources seeks pole position in European lithium race

* Bacanora also working on German project

* Rio Tinto's Serbian project moving slowly forward

LONDON, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Miner Savannah Resources aims to begin mining lithium in Portugal at the end of 2019, making it the first big producer of the battery mineral in Europe, where rival projects are springing up across the continent.

So far, lithium production has been led by Latin America, Australia and China, and Asia has dominated lithium battery-making.

German automakers are pushing for Europe to catch up, while South Korea's LG Chem will open Europe's largest lithium-ion battery factory in Poland next year.

Savannah says it is in line to be Europe's first significant producer of spodumene, a hard-rock form of lithium in favour as a relatively quick source of battery grade lithium compared with brines, which can take much longer to process, although analysts say technological advances could change that.

"We're in a unique position in Europe. What we have is a premier lithium project," CEO David Archer said in an interview.

"Late 2019 for a production start is an aggressive target for Savannah but also one which the company thinks is achievable."

Although Europe is reliant on lithium imports, which analysts say in any case are economic to ship, there are other projects for domestic production.

The biggest is Rio Tinto's giant reserve in Serbia, which Rio says is expected to start production in 2023.

Another junior miner Bacanora Minerals is focused on bringing on new soft rock lithium production, which is potentially cheaper to process than hard rock, in Mexico in 2019. But it also decided to seek out a European project and has a 50 percent interest in and joint operational control of the Zinnwald Lithium Project in eastern Germany.

In Mexico, Bacanora already has a pilot project that is producing battery-grade lithium carbonate and has a 10-year offtake, or supply, agreement with Japanese trading house Hanwa .

Hanwa has a nearly 10 percent stake in Bacanora, as does U.S. investment manager BlackRock.

Savannah says it does not yet have offtake deals, but is looking to negotiate with the companies that convert spodumeme concentrate into battery chemicals and with auto manufacturers. (Editing by Mark Potter)