Ancient relics will delay huge Afghan copper mine

Sun Dec 5, 2010 11:24am EST
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By Michelle Nichols

KABUL (Reuters) - Safeguarding ancient Buddhist relics at a huge Chinese-run copper mine in Afghanistan could take three years and delay the country's biggest foreign investment project, the Afghan mining minister said on Sunday.

Archaeologists recently uncovered Buddhist remains at Aynak mine southwest of Kabul, including a temple, stupas, frescoes and statues several meters high, some more than 15 centuries old.

The site is one of the world's major copper ore bodies with proven reserves of 9 million tonnes of copper. The project by Metallurgical Corp of China Ltd (MCC) there is forecast to earn government coffers up to $400 million annually.

The discoveries "will delay the implementation of the project for a while, but that is something that we can afford," Mines Minister Wahidullah Shahrani told Reuters after a working group meeting of the MCC, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA), the United Nations and U.S. forces.

"Some of the mining operations will be slowed down, but (MCC) are aware of their responsibility and as soon as they get clearance from our archaeologists then they will go ahead with the mining," he said.

Shahrani did not elaborate on how long the project, originally due to begin production in 2013, could be delayed. A spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Industry had said last month that there would not be any impact on the mine.

The project is by far the biggest component of plans to wean Afghanistan off the foreign aid that currently makes up most of its budget. Washington believes Afghanistan's economic future depends on it becoming able to exploit hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars in untapped mineral wealth.

Afghanistan is also committed to preserving an architectural heritage that has often been under threat. Its most famous pre-Islamic monuments -- giant statues of Buddha carved into cliffs -- were blown up by the strict Islamist Taliban in 2001.   Continued...