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British Mining Venture Signs Exploration Deal in Afghanistan

Equipment and machines installed by Chinese excavators are seen near a stalled copper mine in Mes Aynak, Logar province in Afghanistan, Feb. 14, 2015.

A company founded by a London-based banker signed agreements Friday with the government of Afghanistan to explore for gold and copper in the north of the country.

Centar Ltd. said it hopes to begin exploration in two sites next year and would within a year become one of the largest private-sector employers in the country.

Company officials held a signing ceremony at Afghanistan's embassy in Washington with the country's finance minister, Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi, and the minister of mines and petroleum, Nargis Nehan.

Centar said in announcing the deal that it would explore for copper in an area of about 190 square miles (500 square kilometers) known as Balkhab and for gold in an area about twice the size called Badakhshan. The British company was founded by Ian Hannam, a former chairman of capital markets at JP Morgan, and says it has investors from the U.S., Britain and several other nations.

Afghanistan is believed to have a largely untouched wealth of minerals and metals. But war and corruption have prevented the development of a modern mining industry and the country remains one of the world's poorest counties.

Anti-corruption organization Global Witness said Afghan and civil society organizations have raised concerns about this project, including that a former government minister is a partner in the venture in an apparent violation of a law barring someone in that position from acquiring a mining concession within five years of leaving the post.

Sadat Mansoor Naderi, who served as minister of housing and development from 2015 until June of this year, is now president of Afghanistan Gold and Minerals, Centar's local partner in the venture.

Centar CEO Bradley Barnett said the company obtained its concession in 2012, before Naderi became a minister, and has not violated the law. ``That is the interpretation that we have and that everybody that we consulted has,'' he said.