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Ivory Coast rebel zones strike gold, await wealth

By Loucoumane Coulibaly TONGON, Ivory Coast, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Gold pouring from a mine in Ivory Coast's rebel-held northern zones since this week is offering new livelihoods for locals who have long seen themselves as neglected by successive southern governments. The surge in mining interest coincides with a presidential poll -- heading towards a Nov. 28 run-off -- that many Ivorians hope will put their drawn out crisis behind them, reuniting the country and spurring new investment in the process. At a gold mine in the hot, dry savannah of northern Ivory Coast, local workers donning helmets watch hot gold dribble from a kiln, their shiny protective outfits lit up by the flames. "For 40 years the development of this country was based on nothing but agriculture," Mines Minister Augustin Komoe said during a visit to the new site.

"We don't want to abandon agriculture, but we must intensify our work in mining." Randgold Resources, poured its first gold from the West African nation on Monday, forecasting an average annual production of 277,000 ounces from its Tongon mine. Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa grower and a modest oil producer, is eager to diversify its economy, in part via a nascent mining sector that currently makes up only 1 percent of GDP, but is on the rise. The government hopes to triple gold production from current levels to 20 tonnes a year by 2015. It is also seeking to develop nickel and iron ore deposits. Gne Soro, 30, used to be a cotton planter, but after a crisis split Ivory Coast in two, leaving its drier, cotton producing zones in rebel hands, he became desperately poor. "You couldn't make a living from cotton any more, so like all the other farmers I just abandoned it," he said, as other workers prepared to pour liquid gold into a cast. After years of grinding poverty, Soro got a job as a worker in the gold mine paying 100,000 CFA francs ($207) a month, and is now able to afford a small motorbike, which he lines up at his work place alongside scores of others. The mine employs only about 1,000 workers, but plans to hire more. "Mining has pulled a lot of us out of poverty," he said. A BOOST FOR THE NORTH Hopes that Ivory Coast will regains its reputation as an economic and investor hub in the region hinge on a peaceful and accepted run off between incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, a veteran rival and former IMF official. Current gold output, before Randgold opened its mine this week, was about 7 tonnes a year, from mines operated by Societe des Mines D'Ity, LGL, and Cluff. Besides Randgold, Canada's Etruscan Resources and Australia's Equigold have permits. Others are being heard. "Prospects are now very good with the opening of the Tongon mine. This mine has already doubled Ivory Coast's production," Komoe said. "Here alone we are hoping for 10 tonnes a year." As Ivory Coast moves towards reunification, after years of war, crisis and instability that hurt growth and scared off investment, the noticeably poorer northern and far west regions are hoping for a quick recovery. Much of the significant gold deposits so far found are in rebel territory, and already, Tongon residents say their lives have improved after two years of setting up the mine. "This village has really developed, with people building nicer houses," said Seydou Bamba, 27. "There's money here." (Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by David Lewis) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://af.reuters.com/) ($1=481.8 Cfa Franc) Keywords: IVORYCOAST GOLD/ (tim.cocks@thomsonreuters.com; Abidjan Newsroom +225 07074101) COPYRIGHT Copyright Thomson Reuters 2010. All rights reserved.

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