By Tom Westbrook
SINGAPORE, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape said on Thursday that a joint venture of Barrick Gold Corp ABX.TO and China's Zijin Mining 601899.SS, 2899.HK was set to remain operator of the Porgera gold mine following talks in Port Moresby.
In April, Marape had refused to extend the expired mining lease of operator Barrick Niugini Limited (BNL), citing environmental and social problems.
That saw BNL mount legal challenges and close down the mine in a year spot gold prices XAU= have hit all-time highs.
"We have agreed in principle that Papua New Guinea will take a major share of equity under the new arrangements and BNL will retain operatorship and there will be a fair sharing of the economic benefits," Marape said in a joint statement issued after talks with Barrick Gold Chief Executive Mark Bristow on reopening the mine.
Barrick and Zijin currently each hold 47.5% in the Porgera project, with the remaining 5% held by Mineral Resources Enga, itself a joint venture of Enga province and local landowners.
It was not immediately clear roughly how big Papua New Guinea's (PNG) equity stake would be. Barrick declined further comment.
Marape and Bristow "have agreed to meet again in the coming weeks once negotiations conclude", the statement said.
"I am certain that my team will be able to work with the PNG state negotiation team ... in finalising full commercial details," it quoted Bristow as saying.
Separately, Barrick on Thursday estimated a 10.8% drop in third-quarter gold production as Porgera remained shut during the period.
(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; additional reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; additional reporting by Jeff Lewis in Toronto; Writing by Tom Daly; Editing by Pravin Char and Steve Orlofsky)
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