(Updates to focus on Zaldivar stake sale)
April 27 (Reuters) - Barrick Gold Corp said on Monday it has started the process to sell a stake in its Zaldivar copper mine in Chile as the world's biggest gold miner works to meet an ambitious debt reduction target of $3 billion by year end.
Speculation has been rife for weeks that Barrick could sell all or some of the open-pit mine in northern Chile.
Confirmation of the planned sale was contained in Barrick's quarterly results release, which showed the Toronto-based miner reporting first-quarter earnings below analysts' expectations.
Reuters reported last week that Barrick is being advised on options for Zaldivar by the boutique firm of mining rainmaker Michael Klein, in a deal potentially worth around $2 billion, three sources familiar with the matter said.
Barrick did not say how much of Zaldivar it was planning to sell but said there has been "strong interest" in the asset.
Sources have said it could be of interest to other mining companies as well as private equity funds like the mining arm of Warburg Pincus and Mick Davis' X2, among others.
Numerous companies have also shown interest in the previously announced sales of its Cowal and Porgera mines, Barrick said.
Earlier Barrick said its net earnings fell to $57 million, or 5 cents a share, in the quarter to end-March from $88 million, or 8 cents a share, in the same period a year ago on the back of a weaker gold price and sales.
Adjusted net earnings were $62 million, or 5 cents a share, below the 10 cents a share that analysts on average were expecting, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The miner produced 1.39 million ounces of gold in the first quarter at an all-in sustaining cost of $927 an ounce. Copper production totaled 118 million pounds at cash costs of $1.84 per pound.
Although Barrick has no plans to expand its existing copper position, the company said it was keen to maximize the value of assets it already owns. To that end, it has formed a strategic partnership to explore for copper deposits in northern Chile.
Barrick also announced what it said was a "significant" new gold discovery, known as Alturas, in Chile.
Barrick will hold its annual meeting on Tuesday. A number of institutional investors are planning to vote against its executive pay plan and withhold votes for directors to express unhappiness with the scheme. (Reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; Editing by Alan Crosby, Bernard Orr and Cynthia Osterman)