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Barrick CEO Bristow eyes Freeport's flagship Grasberg mine

FILE PHOTO: Mark Bristow, chief executive officer of Barrick Gold, speaks during an interview at the Investing in African Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town

By Helen Reid and Ernest Scheyder

(Reuters) - Barrick Gold Corp <ABX.TO> does not want to buy copper mining giant Freeport McMoRan Inc <FCX.N>, although it is interested in its rival's flagship Grasberg mine in Indonesia, Chief Executive Mark Bristow said on Thursday.

The strategy replicates one that Bristow successfully deployed in 2019: aggressively float interest in an entire company even though the ultimate goal is just one asset.

Rumors that Barrick, the world's second-largest gold miner, planned to bid for Freeport are "completely wrong", Bristow told Reuters on the sidelines of the Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town. "People jump to conclusions," he said.

The rumors, though, were flamed in recent weeks by Bristow himself in meetings with analysts and investors that leaked out to various media.

"People say, 'Are you interested in Grasberg?' I say, 'I have to be; it's a tier one asset,'" Bristow said. Tier one assets refer to high-grade, long-life mines.

Buying Grasberg - the world's largest gold mine and second-largest copper mine - would fit nicely into Barrick's strategy of expanding in the Pacific Rim and capitalizing on rising copper demand from the electric vehicle industry.

Bristow said he believes copper will be "the most-strategic metal on this planet" in a decade.

A Freeport spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an interview with Reuters last week, Freeport CEO Richard Adkerson declined to discuss Barrick.

Bristow last February launched a hostile takeover bid for rival gold miner Newmont Corporation <NEM.N>. The fight turned nasty - Bristow at one point called Newmont's then-CEO a "loser" - but ultimately Bristow got what he wanted: a cost-saving joint venture between the two companies in Nevada.

Buying all of Freeport, which traces its roots back to 1834, could bring legacy risk associated with old mines, Bristow said.

Freeport in late 2018 relinquished majority control of Grasberg under pressure from the Indonesian government. The deal smoothed relations with Jakarta and keeps Freeport the mine's operator until 2041.

Freeport is now spending more than $15 billion to expand Grasberg in what will be the largest underground mine ever developed.

Struggling with unrest at the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea (PNG), Bristow said Barrick offered the government a 52% share of the economic benefits of the mine in response to government demands for a larger stake.

If Barrick succeeds in resolving the dispute in PNG, the market will be more comfortable with the company taking on more risk the Pacific Rim, Bristow said.

(Reporting by Helen Reid in Cape Town and Ernest Scheyder in Houston; editing by Barbara Lewis and Lisa Shumaker)