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09/25/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Soco International Oil Exploration In Democratic Republic of Congo Sanctuary Opposed By British

KINSHASA, Sept 25 (Reuters) - The British government said on Tuesday it is opposed to London-based oil company Soco International exploring for oil in Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park, which is a last refuge for the region's mountain gorillas.

"We have informed Soco and urge the government of DR Congo to fully respect the international conventions to which it is signatory," a foreign office spokesperson said in a statement seen by Reuters.

"Foreign investments in sectors such as hydrocarbons ... can play a vital role in boosting development of the DRC ... Such investment needs to be done responsibly and sustainably, in compliance with local law and conforming to international standards," the statement said.

Congolese law prohibits any extractive industries within its national parks, although earlier this year the government said it had granted Soco permission to do aerial surveys of the area.

Congo's oil minister said last week that the country would consider allowing exploration within the park, which is Africa's oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Virunga National park is also one of the world's foremost biodiversity hot spots.

The oil minister's comments were the clearest signs yet that the government was prepared to act in a manner that was contrary to widespread opposition from conservationists, and allow oil to be pumped from Virunga if significant deposits were found.

Soco controls Block 5 of the so-called Albertine Graben, an area along the border with Uganda, which has already estimated its own reserves at 3.5 billion barrels.

A recent statement by Soco's deputy chief executive officer, Roger Cagle, said exploration work had temporarily been halted due to security concerns in an area that has seen violent clashes between rebels and government forces.

Cagle also said that Soco was years away from completing its research in the area and that at this stage no drilling had been planned.

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