FRANKFURT, Feb 20 (Reuters) - German utility RWE has given assurances it will not touch a forest it had hoped to clear for lignite mining until late 2020, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state said on Wednesday, amid a debate about Germany's planned exit from coal.
"This means that there will not be any felling of trees until the autumn of 2020," said Armin Laschet in the state parliament in Duesseldorf.
A government-appointed commission said last month Germany should shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2038 at the latest.
The Hambach forest has become a symbol of the anti-coal protest.
Laschet said preserving Hambach long-term would be subject to negotiations between RWE and the government over how to handle the national coal withdrawal plan.
He added protesters squatting in the forest to signal their opposition to the mining of lignite, also called brown coal, and the burning of it in nearby power plants should go home.
A spokesman for RWE confirmed the company had agreed to the moratorium but added the decision "implies significant operational limitations."
RWE chief executive Rolf Martin Schmitz said last month that preserving the forest could cost tens of millions of euros, given the space needed for mining waste.
Mining has come to a standstill in the area since a court order in October.
RWE is Germany's largest operator of coal-fired power plants and employs about 10,000 staff in the Rheinische coal mining area, which also includes power plants. (Reporting by Matthias Inverardi; Writing by Vera Eckert; editing by Alexandra Hudson)
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