Rio Tinto Halts Chinese Iron Ore Talks

SYDNEY (AP) -- Iron ore suppliers and China have broken off price talks and it is unclear when they will resume, an executive of Rio Tinto Ltd., which is negotiating for the suppliers, said Friday.

The talks on supply contracts for the supply year that began July 1 are deadlocked over how deeply to cut prices following two years of sharp increases.

"At this point in time we're not negotiating," Sam Walsh, chief executive of Rio's iron ore business, said in the western Australian city of Perth. He said talks might resume. "I expect they will, but I don't know when."

China, the world's biggest steelmaker, is pressing for price cuts of up to 40 percent following two years of increases totaling more than 100 percent. Major suppliers agreed to a 33 percent cut with Japanese and Korean steel mills this year.

Walsh said that without a contract, Chinese mills are buying iron ore at prices "based on the benchmark" set in talks with other customers this year. The other major suppliers are BHP Billiton Ltd. and Brazil's Vale SA.

Prices could be changed retroactively to July 1 if Rio and the Chinese steel industry association, which is negotiating for the country's mills, reach an agreement.

Tensions over the talks rose when four Rio employees were detained July 5 and later charged with bribery and commercial espionage. Walsh noted that case was proceeding but did not say the suspension was connected to it.

"We are respecting the judicial system and we're pleased that our four employees have been able to hire top-notch lawyers," Walsh said. "We're supporting but standing back from that process and allowing the judicial system to take effect."

A smaller Australian producer, Fortescue Metals Group, agreed Aug. 20 to supply iron ore to China in a deal that Beijing said set a benchmark for prices. But Rio said the deal would have no effect on its talks.

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