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Audit of Areva mines in Niger to conclude this month: ambassador

NIAMEY (Reuters) - An audit of Areva's uranium mines in Niger to determine cost reductions in a new long-term contract is likely to be completed before the end of this month, France's ambassador to Niger said.

Ten-year contracts for the Cominak and Somair mines in northern Niger expire at the end of the year. The two mines produce some 4,500 metric tons of uranium per year and account for roughly a third of the state-controlled French company's total.

President Mahamadou Issoufou has said Niger, one of the poorest countries on earth, wants to dramatically increase the state's revenues from the mines.

Mining Minister Omar Hamidou Tchiana told Reuters in an interview last month that the government had ordered an audit to increase profits at the mines, in which Niger holds a stake of over 30 percent.

"There is an audit underway decided by common agreement between Niger and Areva in the context of discussions for the renewal of the Cominak and Somair licenses," France's ambassador to Niger, Christophe Bouchard, told the DOUNIA television station.

"This will serve as a base for the discussions between Areva and Niger on the renegotiation of contracts, particularly their financial conditions and the tax rates," he said. "We are awaiting with interest the results of this audit in the course of this month."

Completing the audit soon could reduce the risk of disagreements delaying the new contract. Transparency campaigners will probe its findings carefully for any insight into an opaque industry which many feel is not doing enough to foster development in Niger.

Extractive industries watchdogs, including the local branch of Publish What You Pay, have accused Areva of a lack of transparency in how it reports revenues and costs in Niger.

France relies for roughly three quarters of its electricity on nuclear reactors, which Areva builds and supplies with fuel. International uranium prices, however, have slumped after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, squeezing Areva's earnings.

The company, 87-percent owned by the French state, made a loss of 99 million euros last year, but expects to make an operating profit of more than 1.1 billion euros this year, helped in part by its uranium mining business.

Areva, which has been mining Niger uranium for four decades, has a 63.6 percent stake in Somair and 34 percent in Cominak.

Niger is calling upon the company to make infrastructure investments, including resurfacing the road between the town of Tahoua and the remote mining region of Arlit, more than 1,000 km north of the capital Niamey - known as the 'uranium road'.

(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; writing by Daniel Flynn; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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