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By David Rohde and Clara Ferreira-Marques
NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) - FBI agents have arrested a man who worked as a representative of Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz' operations in Guinea, as part of a U.S. probe into alleged corruption in the mineral-rich West African country.
BSG Resources, the mining arm of Steinmetz' conglomerate, is currently battling the African nation over the right to mine one of the world's largest untapped iron-ore deposits, known as Simandou. It has repeatedly denied Guinean government allegations that it paid bribes to the country's former ruler to obtain the huge concession.
Frederic Cilins, 50, a French national named by the government of Guinea as "an agent" for BSG Resources, was arrested in Florida on Sunday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was charged with obstructing a criminal investigation, tampering with a witness and destruction of records, the U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday.
U.S. authorities in January began investigating potential illegal payments made to obtain mining concessions in Guinea and transfers of those payments into the United States. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act allows U.S. officials to pursue bribery cases abroad.
"Mr. Cilins is charged with scheming to destroy documents and induce a witness to give false testimony to a grand jury investigating potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman. The obstruction charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, the Justice Department said, and the tampering and record-destruction charges each carry up to 20 years.
Neither Cilins nor an attorney could be reached for comment after news of the arrest. A BSG Resources spokesman said the group had no immediate comment.
"We are aware that U.S. authorities have arrested an associate of Beny Steinmetz in the context of a corruption investigation," said a spokesman for the government of Guinea, Damantang Albert Camara. "We will, however, wait for events to develop to have a clearer view and will give a more detailed statement at the appropriate time."
The arrest comes amid already-difficult relations between Guinea and BSG, and raises questions over the development of the Simandou deposit in partnership with Brazilian mining group Vale.
Vale declined to comment on the Cilins case.
BSG and the Guinean government have been at loggerheads for months. A government committee wrote in October to BSG and Vale, detailing allegations that BSG had offered and paid bribes in order to secure mining rights in Guinea.
BSG has denied the allegations, describing them as "a crude smear campaign." The company charges the review process is designed to allow Guinea to renege on its obligations.
Court documents filed by U.S. authorities did not name BSG, but said Cilins was engaged by an unnamed mining "entity" said to have obtained Blocks 1 and 2 of the Simandou deposit in 2008. Cilins is, however, named in the October letter from the Guinean government as a BSG representative in Guinea.
In a 2012 letter replying to the Guinean government's allegations, BSG said that Cilins helped the firm set up its offices in Guinea in 2006. It said he attended meetings, which he set up, with the minister of mines. BSG said Cilins left Guinea in 2006 and stopped working for the firm.
Steinmetz' BSG was awarded the northern half of Simandou - Blocks 1 and 2 - in 2008 by the government of long-ruling leader Lansana Conte. Conte died soon after granting the concession.
BSG was not required to pay any cash up front and was given permission to export via Liberia, a shorter route. In return, Steinmetz agreed to build a $1 billion (654.1 million pounds) railway from the capital of Conakry on the west coast to Kerouane in the southeast.
Vale bought a 51 percent stake from BSG in a $2.5 billion deal in 2010. However, only $500 million of that has been paid, as Vale says targets have not been met in project development.
DOCUMENTS AND PAYMENTS
According to court papers seen by Reuters on Monday, Cilins made offers of payment to the ex-wife of a former high-ranking Guinean official relating to mining concessions.
In March this year, according to the court papers, Cilins called the woman to demand any original documents and, later, to ask that documents be "destroyed." He also asked the woman to sign a document saying she had never entered into any contracts with his company or received any money from Cilins.
The U.S. court documents, which do not name the wife or the official, say the wife claimed Cilins offered to pay her and other ministers in the government $12 million in exchange for receiving the Simandou concession.
The 20-page criminal charge describes four contracts that Cilins entered into with the woman between 2007 and 2010. The first granted her a five percent share of the mining concession. The final one promised a $5 million payment.
It was unclear how much money was paid to the woman, but the court papers stated that some of the funds promised were paid to her Florida bank account.
Late last month, Cilins met with her at the Jacksonville airport and promised her an initial payment of $300,000 in exchange for the destruction of the papers. He later promised to pay her $1 million in exchange for the documents.
Cilins also said that if the company was able to retain its Simandou holding, she would receive $5 million.
Cilins was arrested in Jacksonville on Sunday after meeting the woman. He had $20,000 in cash on him at the time, authorities said.
(Reporting by Davide Rohde and Clara Ferreira-Marques; Edited by Michael Williams and Tim Dobbyn)