* Zogota project much smaller than blocked Simandou project
* Project relaunches Mick Davis’ mining career (Adds comment from Guinean mining minister, context)
By Barbara Lewis and Saliou Samb
LONDON/CONAKRY, April 18 (Reuters) - Liberia has signed an outline deal with a new venture set up to mine iron ore in Guinea to be shipped via Liberia, an export route the Guinean government has vetoed for the much larger Simandou project.
The Zogota iron ore project in Guinea is being developed by former Xstrata boss Mick Davis through his Niron Metals venture and marks a relaunch of his mining career.
Following a pledge on economic cooperation by the presidents of Guinea and Liberia at the start of the month in Dakar, an announcement on Thursday in London said the Liberian government and Niron Metals had signed a memorandum of understanding on the passage through Liberia of iron ore from the Zogota deposit.
Liberian National Investment Commission Chairman Molewuleh Gray said the government would begin talks with the railway and port operators relating to third-party access.
Davis, also chief executive of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, said the agreement was a milestone in the development of Zogota. He said the aim was to complete a feasibility study within six months and bring it rapidly into production.
Davis headed mining company Xstrata before its merger with Glencore and then set up private investment vehicle X2, which failed to make any deals.
The Guinea project opens up the prospect of iron ore mining, overshadowed for years in the west African nation by the failure to exploit the giant Simandou project.
Simandou has been hindered by legal wrangling as well as the $23 billion cost of the required infrastructure to export through a Guinean route.
Guinea has stuck to its view that ore mined from Simandou must be shipped via the country’s own ports, but has said the much smaller Zogota, which is located further south, would be permitted to send its ore through Liberia.
“Since the beginning, the option chosen for the Zogota project was to export via Libera,” Guinean Mines Minister Abdoulaye Magassouba said on Thursday.
“In contrast, Simandou’s four blocs will use the TransGuinean (railway) and no other option is being considered.”
He declined to give further details.
The TransGuinean is an approximately 650 kilometre (403.9 mile) railway project that would link Simandou, in the east, with other parts of the country and allow export from Guinea’s west coast. The project also includes the construction of a deep water port.
The more modest Zogota project’s shorter export route would rely on Liberian rail infrastructure owned by steelmaker Arcelor Mittal. Arcelor Mittal could not be reached for comment. (Reporting by Barbara Lewis Editing by David Holmes and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)