By Aaron Ross
DAKAR, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's oil minister on Thursday defended the country's right to explore for oil anywhere on its territory after media reports that President Joseph Kabila approved drilling in Africa's largest tropical rainforest reserve.
Oil minister Aime Ngoy Mukena declined to confirm a report in Germany's Die Tageszeitung newspaper that Kabila had this month authorised exploration inside Salonga National Park, but he said that no land should be off-limits.
Salonga, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers 33,350 sq km of the Congo Basin, the world's second-largest rainforest. It is home to rare species including bonobos, forest elephants, dwarf chimpanzees and Congo peacocks.
The park in central Congo's Cuvette Centrale also sits on peatlands that scientists say could release massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmsophere if disturbed.
Ngoy Mukena said the government was mindful of environmental considerations but was intent on developing its hydrocarbons sector.
"The law permits us to (explore) in any part of the country," Ngoy Mukena told Reuters.
"When oil is found in a restricted area or in an area that belongs to UNESCO, the government stops and brings together ministers ... and experts to see what the danger would be."
A UNESCO spokesman did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Its World Heritage Committee has previously said that oil and mining exploration should not be conducted within World Heritage sites.
UNESCO and environmental groups opposed oil exploration by British company Soco International in eastern Congo's Virunga National Park, another World Heritage site. The company let its licence lapse in 2015 after performing seismic testing.
Congo, Africa's leading copper producer, has long aimed to boost its oil sector and is believed to have sizeable reserves in the Cuvette Centrale and near its border with Uganda, but output has remained flat at about 25,000 barrels per day.
(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by David Goodman)
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