Protesters in Kyrgyzstan unblock Canadian gold mine, but unrest continues in southern city

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Protesters have lifted their blockade of a Canadian gold mine in eastern Kyrgyzstan, but their supporters in the south are continuing their siege of a local governor’s headquarters, officials said Saturday.

Hundreds of stone-throwing protesters besieged the Kumtor gold mine, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold, for several days, demanding its nationalization and more social benefits. They blocked a road leading to the mine and cut power supplies, prompting the Kyrgyz president to introduce a state of emergency in the ex-Soviet Central Asian nation.

The violence threatened further turmoil in the country of 5 million, which hosts a U.S. base supporting military operations in nearby Afghanistan.

On Friday, more than 50 people were wounded and 80 detained in violent clashes between stone-throwing protesters trying to storm the Kumtor mine’s office and riot police, who fought back with rubber bullets and stun grenades.

The provincial administrator, Bakyt Dzhusubaliyev, told The Associated Press on Saturday that protesters have unblocked the road and the electricity supply to the mine was restored.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiyev visited the area Saturday to assess the situation and meet with local residents. He said that protest caused $4 million in damage to the mine.

The mine is the largest foreign-owned gold mine in the former Soviet Union. It accounts for about 12 per cent of the Kyrgyzstan’s economy and has been at the centre of heated debate between those favouring nationalization and officials who believe that would deter much-needed foreign investment.

Satybaldiyev told local residents that the government will make sure that the nation gets more revenues from the mine through taxes. His deputy met with Centerra executives, urging them to restore normal operation as early as Monday.

While the situation in the area around the mine appeared to calm down, tensions remained high in the southern city of Jalal-Abad, where protesters stormed the governor’s office Friday demanding the nationalization of the mine and the release of several opposition lawmakers jailed over their role in previous unrest.

The protesters retained control of the building on Saturday, and about 300 people were gathering outside. One of their leaders, Chyngiz Abdumomunov, told the AP they wouldn’t leave until the government fulfills their demands.

Dzhusubali Toromatov, a spokesman for the regional administration, said that the authorities hope to resolve the crisis through talks.

Politics in Kyrgyzstan are shaped by clan loyalties and sharp divisions between the north and the south. The ex-Soviet nation on China’s mountainous western frontier has seen the violent overthrow of two governments since gaining independence in 1991.

In 2010, the government was overthrown and clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks killed at least 470 people, mostly Uzbeks, and displaced about 400,000 people.


AP writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.