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Guinea sparks showdown over mineral riches

Nov. 15, 2012 at 4:42 PM   |   Comments

CONAKRY, Guinea, Nov. 15 (UPI) -- The head of the Treasury in the Guinea has been assassinated amid a looming showdown over the West African country's fabled mineral riches involving rival tycoons, including a buccaneering Israeli billionaire who sits on a mountain of iron ore.

The Financial Times observed that the battle for mineral rights "could prove a test case in a continent where natural resources make up two-thirds of exports but have tended to generate strife rather than prosperity."

Treasury Director Aissatou Boiro was killed Nov. 9 in Conakry, Guinea's capital, as she was driving home. Police said she was shot twice in the chest at close range.

The attack appears to be linked to a major anti-corruption drive launched by President Alpha Conde, a Marxist intellectual and veteran opposition leader who spent years in exile before he was elected in December 2010 and started to clean up government after decades of high-level graft.

Boiro was appointed by Conde eight months ago to investigate large-scale corruption under earlier dictatorships, as well as current cases, in the former French colony that sits on an estimated 4 billion metric tons -- 25 percent of world reserves -- of high-grade iron ore.

It also has some 25 billion metric tons of bauxite, the second largest deposits in the world; large deposits of gold and diamonds; and undetermined quantities of uranium.

Colleagues said Boiro was assassinated to silence her after she launched an investigation into the disappearance of millions of dollars in state funds.

Economist Idrissa Camaram, a former treasury official, said: "She was an honest woman who was against all forms of corruption. In Guinea all of the cases of large-scale embezzlement happen at the Treasury Department.

"She became inconvenient for certain economic predators who're in the government."

Boiro's death hasn't been formally linked to any particular case of graft under investigation. But Guinea's Treasury had been systematically looted by senior officials, allegedly including one of Conde's predecessors, Lansana Conte, whose 24-year dictatorship ended with his death in late 2008.

Moussa Camara, an army officer, seized power after Conte's death. The Financial Times described Camara as "so paranoid he would only hold Cabinet meetings in the dead of night at his barracks."

Camara's disastrous rule ended when one of his aides shot him. He was badly wounded and fled the country.

The junta pledged to hand restore civilian rule, which led to Conde's election and a full-scale government probe into official corruption and a review of how mining contracts were awarded by earlier administrations.

The investigation includes allegations that Conte awarded major mining contracts in return for fat commissions to family members, including $2.5 million to his fourth wife, and expensive gifts like a diamond-encrusted, gold miniature Formula One car to a Cabinet minister.

Much is at stake here. "Tens of billions of dollars, as well as the future of a woebegone West African state nation of 10 million people, hang in the balance," the Financial Times reported Nov. 7.

"One prize glitters above the rest: Simandou, the mountain that sits on top of arguably the world best under-developed iron ore deposit.

"Supporters of Alpha Conde, whose high-profile advisers include billionaire George Soros and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, say his public commitment to transparency breaks with a past sullied by alleged corruption."

Soros told the business daily "Conde faces an uphill battle; bribery and corruption are deeply ingrained in Guinea."

An investigation committee has recently focused on a group headed by Israeli tycoon Beny Steinmetz who made his fortune in trading diamonds and making high-risk investments.

Conde's government wants to know how, in 2008, Beny Steinmetz Group Resources secured rights to half of Simandou which six months earlier had been stripped from Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining giant.

Simandou ore is said to be of exceptionally high quality. It will take an estimated $10 billion to exploit.

In April 2010, BSGR struck a deal to sell 51 percent of its mining interests in Guinea for $2.5 billion to Vale of Brazil, the world's biggest iron ore miner. That would give BSGR a huge return on a purchase that cost it $160 million, the Financial Times said.

It reported Soros listed "graft allegations relating to BSGR's acquisition of interests in Simandou" that involved "luxury gifts and payments to relatives of Lansana Conte." Both parties deny any wrongdoing.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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