Mali, one of sub-Saharan Africa's biggest gold producers, has named a new mines minister as it accords increasing importance to exploitation of its natural resources, the government said.

Abou Bakar Traore, a former finance minister, was appointed head of a new ministry dedicated only to mining. Energy and water, previously part of the mines minister's portfolio, will be overseen by Mamadou Diarra, who took over at the combined mines, energy and water ministry last October.

Gold accounts for around 70 percent of Mali's export earnings and 15 percent of gross domestic product. Last month, Prime Minister Modibo Sidibe said income from gold would rise 20 percent in 2009 to $240 million, even as the quantity of gold mined falls.

Earlier this year, the mines ministry forecast 2009 output would be 46 tonnes, down 13 percent on last year, as mines approach the end of their productive lives.

One of the few assets to benefit from the global financial crisis, gold -- which many investors see as a safe store of value -- hit an 11-month high of more than $1,000 per ounce in February. It has since fallen, but some analysts expect it to regain this level in the near future.

Mali, which is applying to join an international anti-corruption scheme, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), said last year it would set up a dedicated account for gold revenues in a effort to improve transparency.

Firms active in Malian gold include the world's third largest gold miner, AngloGold Ashanti (ANGJ.J: Quote), and Randgold Resources (RRS.L: Quote).

Mali's second biggest export industry, cotton, has been badly hit by falling prices on international markets and the high cost of imported fertilisers.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Daniel Magnowski; Editing by Anthony Barker)

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