PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — The number of people killed when an illegal gold mine collapsed in Suriname rose to 14 on Tuesday, with seven others missing in what is considered the South American country’s worst mining accident.
Rescue crews combed through mounds of earth in hopes of finding survivors as the government launched an investigation into the deadly incident that occurred Monday in the country’s remote southern region.
“We are shocked and offer our condolences to the relatives,” President Chandrikapersad Santokhi said during a short, televised speech.
He said the incident occurred in an area where a gold vein was previously discovered, attracting large groups of illegal miners.
Zijin Mining, a company that operates a legal gold mine in the area, had been meeting with the government just hours before the incident to find solutions to illegal mining at the concession of its subsidiary, Rosebel Goldmines N.V.
Zijin issued a statement on Monday saying it has “repeatedly emphasized the dangers of illegal gold mining.”
The company previously filed an official eviction request with the government, prompting the army and police to destroy illegal camps and order people to leave the site. However, the illegal miners returned, with several hundred believed to be working in the area.
The region previously was the site of skirmishes between Maroons, who are descendants of slaves, and the mining company’s security guards, with villagers arguing they had a right to mine in the area because it was located on their land. In 2019, angry villagers set fire to company equipment after a security guard fatally shot one of them.
Third parties from unknown places also have entered the area to mine illegally, and it’s not clear where the victims are from.
Suriname has struggled with illegal, small-scale mining for years, with more than 15,000 people working in the small mining sector, including Brazilians and, recently, Chinese. Various attempts to regulate the sector and ban mercury use have failed.
In his speech, Santokhi said officials have agreed to take a “stricter and tighter” approach to regulating the gold sector to prevent such incidents.
Gerold Rozenblad, The Associated Press