By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI - The Anglo-American operator of a gold mine in Armenia that has been blocked for a year by environmental protesters said the government had given it the green light to restart work after a study found it posed no threat.
Access to the Amulsar mine operated by Lydian International has been blocked since last summer by locals and activists worried that it could pollute local water sources and cause irreparable environmental damage.
But the company said late on Monday it had been allowed to restart works at the mine in the Caucasian country's mountainous south, citing a live Facebook broadcast by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
The prime minister's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Lydian chief executive Edward Sellers said the company's environmental and operating practices "meet or exceed all applicable international standards".
Activists, however, disputed the government's interpretation of the environmental impact assessment, which it commissioned last November to end the impasse between protesters and investors.
They said the government had disregarded concerns raised in the report by the Elard group, an international environmental consultancy, about Lydian's original plan for the mine.
"We are shocked by what is happening," said Inga Zarafyan, head of Armenian environmental group Ecolur.
"Not a single study done by professionally trained organisations ... has been taken into account," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The year-long stand-off was seen as a test for Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 after mass protests against corruption and cronyism resulted in a peaceful revolution.
Minerals and metals account for about half Armenia's exports and the mine has divided Armenian society, with some arguing it would provide much-needed employment and others that it would damage the environment and deter tourists.
Lydian has always said its project is safe. It had threatened to go to arbitration if forced to shut it down, having invested almost $500 million.
It was not immediately clear when operations would be allowed to restart or whether the government would move to clear the protesters who have been blocking access.
Earlier on Monday, six people were arrested during a confrontation with police as they held a protest against the mine in the capital Yerevan, Armenia's human rights watchdog said.
"We will continue fighting, there is no doubt about it," said Anna Shahnazaryan of activist group Armenian Environmental Front.