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Heavy machinery is seen at First Quantum's Frontier copper mine in Fungurume, southern Democratic Republic of Congo. (KATRINA MANSON/KATRINA MANSON/Reuters)
Heavy machinery is seen at First Quantum's Frontier copper mine in Fungurume, southern Democratic Republic of Congo. (KATRINA MANSON/KATRINA MANSON/Reuters)

First Quantum exits DRC with $1.25-billion settlement Add to ...

First Quantum Minerals Ltd. is closing a painful chapter of its history in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) by selling its mines and settling all legal claims for $1.25-billion (U.S.), years after its operations were nationalized by the government.

Vancouver-based First Quantum will sell the controversial Kolwezi copper-cobalt project, as well as its Frontier and Lonshi mines, to Kazakh miner Eurasian Natural Resources Corp. PLC, also known as ENRC, the same company it has been battling in international courts over its properties in DRC, one of the world’s most attractive copper regions.

The settlement comes as copper prices are struggling to rebound from a 20-per-cent drop last year, amid worries that debt concerns in Europe and a slowdown in China’s rapidly growing economy could curb demand for the metal used in everything from cars to construction.

Copper closed at $3.42 a pound on the London Metal Exchange on Thursday, well off its record of $4.60 set 11 months ago, but up from recent lows of just below $3 this fall.

“It brings to a close First Quantum’s current involvement in the DRC and secures substantial compensation for our shareholders for the loss they have suffered,” First Quantum chairman and chief executive officer Philip Pascall said in announcing the agreement on Thursday.

The deal also helps London-listed ENRC expand its copper footprint in Congo, to become the second-largest copper producer in Africa within a few years, behind First Quantum.

First Quantum’s investors appeared to view the agreement with ENRC as a surprise windfall, helping lift shares by nearly 9 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Thursday, before closing up 4.4 per cent.

Analysts had valued the company’s Congo assets at about $2.5-billion two years ago, but most had written them down to zero after the government seized control of its Kolwezi project in 2009, alleging the company wasn’t complying with a new mining code.

First Quantum took the matter to international arbitration, including the government’s sale of the asset to a company controlled by Israeli mining entrepreneur Dan Gertler, who later sold it to ENRC.

First Quantum then launched $2-billion in legal claims against ENRC, accusing the company of plotting with the government to expropriate the project. The dispute was headed for trial until settlement negotiations began late last year.

The $1.25-billion payment as part of the agreement with ENRC includes $750-million when the deal closes at the end of next month and a $500-million three-year promissory note.

The companies and the Congolese government are also settling legal claims between them.

“We are pleased to have secured agreement on these significant issues for our company,” ENRC CEO Felix Vulis said. “We have gained material assets and clarified the ownership structures in order to facilitate maximum value creation for ENRC’s shareholders, the DRC and its people.”

The move will see First Quantum exit Congo for good, and focus instead on its copper and gold operations in Peru, Finland, Mauritania, Zambia and Australia.

“We view this news as positive and largely unexpected, as this officially cuts the company’s ties to any involvement in the DRC,” Desjardins Securities analyst John Hughes said in a note, adding the company can use the transaction money to help fund expansion projects.

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