Ebola outbreak not hurting investment in Sierra Leone: foreign minister

By Carolyn Cohn and Chris Vellacott LONDON (Reuters) - The Ebola outbreak has not hurt foreign investment in Sierra Leone but will inevitably require more spending to fight it, the country's foreign minister said on Monday. Sierra Leone is among a group of West African countries suffering the worst-ever outbreak of Ebola, accounting for close to a third of the more than 600 deaths across the region since February, according to World Health Organization figures. "It has not taken investors off-track," Samura Kamara told Reuters in an interview in London. "Inevitably, we have to spend on Ebola - it is something everybody has to fight," he said, adding that the government had remained transparent about its approach to the disease. Mining companies London Mining and African Minerals said last month that they were restricting travel for some staff in Sierra Leone, though both companies also said their operations were unaffected. Religious leaders in Sierra Leone on Monday criticized the government's handling of the outbreak, saying a lack of information was prompting rural communities to shun medical help. The outbreak started in Guinea's remote southeast and has since spread across the region's porous borders. Aid workers have scrambled to help some of the world's weakest health systems tackle the outbreak. In Sierra Leone and Guinea, experts believe scores of patients are being hidden, because relatives and friends believe hospitalization is a "death sentence". But Kamara said even rural communities were becoming more cooperative in helping to tackle the crisis. "When it began, there was a sense of denial, that has changed now," he said. Sierra Leone began exporting iron ore in 2011, fuelling economic growth and spurring foreign investment after the end of its civil war. Kamara said foreign energy companies Lukoil and Anadarko were exploring for oil and gas deposits, as the country tried to catch up with neighbors such as Ghana, where oil has been found. "(The companies) have made some findings, but we are still trying to prove commerciality," he said. Unlike such other West African nations as Senegal and Nigeria, which are on roadshows this week for international bond offers, Sierra Leone is not yet seeking access to international capital markets, in part because of the terms of its IMF program, Kamara said. But the country was preparing to make itself attractive to international fund managers, and was taking advice from Standard Chartered, he added. Sierra Leone does not have a credit rating, but Kamara thought that its credit standing would probably put it in the single-B category if it were to seek a rating. Sierra Leone has attracted investors from China and the Middle East, and was also looking to gain investment from African countries like Nigeria and South Africa in sectors such as infrastructure and mining, Kamara said. Kamara is Sierra Leone's candidate for the presidency of the African National Bank, a position which comes vacant next year and is likely to be hotly contested. Sierra Leone's experience in post-conflict reconstruction gives it an insight into some of the development bank's key areas of focus, Kamara said. "Fragility, gender, governance ... are aspects where we believe Sierra Leone has very good experience to bring." (Editing by Larry King)