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News reports say Afghanistan's minister of mines has been accused of accepting a bribe of at least $20 million to steer a lucrative copper mining contract to a Chinese firm.
The reports published Wednesday by The Washington Post and the Associated Press say Mohammad Ibrahim Adel accepted the money, shortly after the Afghan government awarded the multi-billion dollar project to the state-run China Metallurgical Group in 2007.
The articles quote unnamed U.S. officials who are said to be familiar with reports of the incident.
Adel denies the allegations.
The Chinese firm is expected to invest nearly $3 billion, and pay the Afghan government royalties of some $400 million per year, to tap into one of the world's largest unexploited copper deposits. When the contract was awarded in 2007, Adel hailed the deal as one of the biggest foreign investment projects in Afghanistan's history.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called the allegations "very serious," but said he had no specific information about the case. In a Wednesday briefing, Kelly said he expected Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to raise the issue of corruption, in general, during talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Clinton is in Afghanistan for Mr. Karzai's Thursday inauguration.
President Karzai has been under increased international pressure to fight corruption in his government. On Monday, his government announced it would form an anti-corruption unit.
The China Metallurgical Group beat out challengers from countries including the United States and Canada who were also interested in the rights to extract copper from the Aynak deposit in central Logar province.
At least two U.S. officials have previously raised concerns that the bidding process may have been handled improperly.
James Yeager - a geologist who advised Afghanistan's mines minister - and former U.S. Congressman Don Ritter have both said they thought the bidding process was flawed.
On Tuesday, a Berlin-based group ranked Afghanistan as one of the world's most corrupt countries. The Transparency International group gave Afghanistan the second-lowest score in its annual rating of corruption. Somalia was the lowest.
Some information for this report was provided by AP.