Bolivia in talks to end protests hitting key mines

Aug 14 (Reuters) - The Bolivian government began talks early on Saturday seeking to end protests that have hurt output at two of the world's top silver mines.

The government and the demonstrators, who want an increase in public spending in the mineral-rich Potosi region, both said they were hopeful an agreement could be reached.

The more than two weeks of protests have hurt the mining industry in Bolivia, a major global producer of zinc, silver, tin and lead.

The start of formal negotiations comes after preliminary discussions stalled on Friday. The government has withdrawn earlier demands for demonstrators to lift the protest before sitting down for talks. Protest leaders also dropped demands to meet with President Evo Morales.

"The government wants an agreement as soon as possible to put an end to the protest," Presidency Minister Oscar Coca said.

He said the government was willing to negotiate protesters' demands, which include the building of a cement plant and a new airport.

Protest leader Celestino Condori said talks were "a sign of goodwill."

U.S.-based Coeur D'Alene's (CDE.N) San Bartolome mine, the world's largest pure silver mine, has been shut down for two weeks after workers joined the protests.

Japan-based Sumitomo's (8053.T) silver-zinc-lead San Cristobal mine was forced to stop processing ore after some demonstrators threatened to cut the power supply to the operation.

The combined output of the two mines accounts for about 83 percent of the nearly 1.1 million kilograms of fine silver Bolivia produced in 2009, according to mining ministry data.

Government officials have said the protests could have cost the poor country tens of millions of dollars so far. (Reporting by Carlos Quiroga; Writing by Alonso Soto; Editing by Eric Beech)

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