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Exxon yet to inspect biggest oil project in Afghanistan

KABUL -- Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's biggest non-state oil company, has not yet accepted an offer to look over a new Afghan oil concession in the country's north, possibly indicating a fading appetite to invest in the conflict-wracked country.

As Afghanistan's government finalizes new laws designed to attract more foreign mining investment, Mining Minister Wahidullah Shahrani told Reuters that Exxon had not turned up for a site tour which closes on Sunday, despite being short-listed with eight other firms for the Afghan Tajik tender near Mazar-e-Sharif.

“Hopefully at some point they (Exxon) will visit the area. But that visit is not mandatory,” Shahrani said in an interview late on Saturday in his Kabul office. A spokeswoman for U.S.-based Exxon said she could not immediately comment.

Exxon's July expression of interest in the Afghan Tajik basin, which holds an estimated 1.9 billion barrels of oil, lent credence to hopes that Kabul may be making progress in efforts to lessen its reliance on aid, through untapped resources worth as much as US$1 trillion, despite an ongoing insurgency.

Shahrani said that with an October bid closure deadline looming, short-listed companies had been invited to inspect the area and meet local community leaders, an offer which closes on Sept. 30, and which would usually be accepted.

“Some companies, they have already visited, some companies are about to visit the area,” he said. “Those companies, most of them are well established in the region.”

Chinese and Indian companies are already scrambling to lock in access to Afghanistan's mineral wealth, most estimates of which date back to U.S surveys carried out decades ago. The country has large deposits of gold, copper, iron ore and oil, as well as lithium and rare earths used in high-tech manufacturing.

Chinese firms are leading the race, with China Metallurgical Group (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper winning a 2007 deal to exploit the giant US$3 billion Aynak copper mine southeast of the capital Kabul.

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