* DR Congo blocks Soco bid to explore in park area
* Soco says minister’s decision premature
* Conservationists warn exploitation could damage park
By Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA, March 17 (Reuters) - Congo has confirmed a suspension of all oil exploration in Africa’s oldest national park, blocking attempts by British oil company Soco SIA.L to search for oil there, the government said on Thursday.
Soco and its sister company Dominion hold rights to a block in the unstable east of Democratic Republic of Congo near the border with Uganda, but have met fierce criticism from conservationists because much of the concession lies within Virunga National Park.
Congo’s environment minister Jose Endundo, said in an open letter to environmentalists, dated March 14th, that all oil exploration within the park was suspended.
“We have rejected the recommendations of an environmental impact assessment conducted by the oil company, Soco, which we consider premature, superficial and does not conform to the standards we expect,” the minister said in the letter.
Soco was awarded prospecting rights by a presidential decree for the block last year.
Roger Cagle, Soco’s deputy CEO, told Reuters by telephone from London that he was shocked that the environmental impact assessment, which was submitted last week, had been rejected so quickly.
“I’d be surprised if the minister has even read it, we were told it would take a month to get back to us,” he said.
At this stage the delay is not a concern for the company as operations have not started, Cagle said. He added that Soco could not wait indefinitely to find a resolution to the problem.
Virunga National Park is considered one of the most biodiversity-rich places on the planet, but in recent years it has become a haunt for various armed groups operating in Congo’s war-torn east.
Last month a vehicle belonging to Soco was attacked by rebels near the park and a South African security contractor was kidnapped and later released.
Last month Soco also faced allegations of illegally forcing entry into the park, a charge the company denied.
Conservationists warn mineral exploitation within the park would be environmentally damaging, although Cagle said their presence would be beneficial to the area.
“It is up to the government to decide what they want and we’ll abide by that,’ he added.
Editing by Bate Felix