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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.
MCC President Zou Jianhui said the discovery of the Aynak relics would have an effect on operations, saying "it could be a long time" before mining starts. He said MCC was committed to preserving Aynak relics, but also to developing the mine.
China is the world's top copper consumer but can produce less than one third of its needs, making the Aynak supply vital. "This is very important for our country and this is also very important for this country," Zou told Reuters.
The Aynak copper project is 75 percent owned by MCC and 25 percent owned by China's top copper producer, Jiangxi Copper.
DAFA submitted a preliminary assessment of the Aynak site on Sunday that identified 14 possible locations where relics could be found, Shahrani said, adding that the archaeologists had told the meeting on Sunday that all the relics could be moved.
"In order to preserve them for future generations at this stage the decision of the working group is that everything should be moved," he said, adding that the relics would be temporarily housed in a warehouse near the site.
He said DAFA would submit a final report with a "with recommendations about how we safely remove those cultural relics from Aynak, how we can preserve them, where they should be located and how we're going to protect them."
The Afghan Ministry of Mines and Ministry of Culture and Information signed an agreement on Sunday to cooperate on the protection and preservation of the relics discovered at Aynak.
Shahrani said there was also strong protection in cultural and mining laws that make the safe removal and preservation of archaeological or cultural relics a priority over mining.
"We are taking a very cautious approach with regards to the preservation and safe removal of these relics because it doesn't just belong to Afghanistan but it does belong to entire humanity," he said of the Aynak site.
Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Peter Graff