Gold miners under threat in Kyrgyzstan

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 7:46 AM

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- What started out as a protest quickly descended into a rampage of looting and arson by marauders on horseback.

The victim of the attack was a South African-run gold exploration concession in the economically depressed Talas province in western Kyrgyzstan. A mob of young men threatened workers and raided offices, smashing furniture and throwing equipment out of windows before setting a medical clinic alight.

This former Soviet nation, which hosts U.S. and Russian military air bases, has been struggling to put its economy back on track since last year's violent overthrow of widely reviled former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and a spate of ethnic killings in the south. But further such incidents paired with the country's rocky recent history could scare off more foreign investment.

Unlike Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan has little oil or gas. It does have an estimated 2,500 tons of gold, however. It is reliant on foreign investment and expertise to tap that potential.

Seasoned mining workers grumble privately that tensions with local people are a common feature of doing business in Kyrgyzstan, but they are wary of airing their grievances for fear of souring ties with the communities among which they work.

Askar Shabdanov, an assistant to the Talas governor, confirmed the attack this month on the exploration site and said that it was only official intervention that stopped the violence from spreading to other sites in the province.

"We had information that destructive elements had plans to carry out similar actions at other mines," Shabdanov said.

On March 10, 200 demonstrators turned up at miner Talas Copper Gold's premises near the village of Aral demanding a change in what they say are unfair hiring practices, employees recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity because of company policy.

The ill-tempered gathering soon turned violent as a mob of young men, some of them drunk and on horseback, charged through the miners' main gates, smashing offices and torching the medical clinic, witnesses said.

Workers said looting only stopped momentarily when the mob took a break to eat hot food left behind by cooks who had fled the violence.

A female employee returned to the onsite living quarters in the hope of saving her belongings only to find a young man rooting through her underwear, worker said.

Several hours later, local government officials arrived in the hope of restoring calm, but to no avail.

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