By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI - Operations at a Chinese-owned gold mine in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan have been suspended after 20 people were hurt in clashes between workers and villagers worried about toxic spills, the Kyrgyz government said on Wednesday.
The mine operator, Zhong Ji Mining, could not be immediately reached for comment about the clashes or their cause. But the interior ministry said a brawl erupted after some 300 locals of central Naryn province gathered outside the Solton Sary mine on Monday, demanding its Chinese operator halt work.
"Both sides pelted stones at each other," the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
One villager and 19 workers were taken to hospital, a health ministry spokeswoman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Mining is crucial to the economy of the Central Asian state, with one single gold mine of Kumtor, in the east, accounting for about 10 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank.
But on Wednesday, the government said work at the Naryn mine would be suspended for a month, pending a probe.
The decision was based on findings by the state environmental and technical security inspectorate, it said in a statement, without elaborating further.
From Armenia to Thailand, mines are often the target of protesters worried about potential damage to the environment.
The protests in Kyrgyzstan started after livestock grazing near the mine began to die last month - something that residents blamed on toxic spillage, the government said.
When locals first voiced their concerns in July, local veterinary officials said tests showed most of the deaths were due to parasitic diseases and a lack of vaccinations, and that no harmful substances from the mine had been found.
The Chinese embassy in Bishkek urged the Kyrgyz government to protect its companies and workers, and called for a thorough investigation, along with punishment for those responsible.
China requires all its companies working overseas to abide to local laws and contribute to local communities, it said.
Kyrgyz villagers have frequently raised environmental concerns over mining, but protests are sometimes exploited for political reasons, said Kate Mallinson, a Central Asia expert at British think tank Chatham House.
In May, the former Soviet republic's parliament voted to ban uranium exploration and mining after demonstrations.
Resentment at Beijing's influence has been on the rise, fuelled by reports of mass detentions of ethnic Kyrgyz - among others - in China's western province of Xinjiang.
In January, Kyrgyz police detained more than a dozen people at an anti-Chinese rally in Bishkek, where protesters demanded curbs on work permits for Chinese citizens as well as a reduction of Kyrgyz debt to China.
China is one of the biggest investors in Central Asia and a key trading partner for the region.