UPATA, Venezuela (Reuters) - A collapsed tunnel at a wildcat gold pit in south Venezuela has killed six people and injured another two, authorities said, in South America’s latest mining accident this year.
The accident occurred on Monday night in remote jungle near the town of El Callao in the mineral-rich southeastern state of Bolivar. Some miners in the area said others were trapped, but authorities doubted anyone was still in the tunnels.
A run of accidents at South American mines has increased concerns over safety standards in an industry expanding quickly in several countries in the region.
An ongoing rescue operation in Chile, where 33 miners have been trapped for 19 days in a mine, was preceded in June by a blast at a Colombian coal mine that killed 70 people.
Miners’ representatives put the Venezuelan death toll higher than the official version of six.
Alfredo Villanueva, spokesman for a local wildcat miners’ association, said 15 had died, while Nelly Matute, president of a cooperative active at the mine, put the toll at 14.
The pit, known as Tomi, is riddled with hand-built tunnels where about 300 men work in small groups seeking underground gold veins deep in the jungle.
“They put their lives at risk,” Venezuela’s Mining Minister Jose Khan told state television, confirming six men were killed and another two injured in the accident.
“We presume there are no other people dead or trapped in the place,” he added.
Bolivar state’s head of emergency services, Jose Garcia, also said he did not believe more men were trapped.
“It collapsed while the miners were digging a tunnel. There is one man injured in hospital and another injured person who left the hospital,” Garcia told Reuters, adding that heavy machinery was working at the site to look for more casualties.
Wildcat miners are wary of authorities because their makeshift pits are usually illegal. The Venezuelan army has been sweeping Bolivar state this year to try and stamp out a gold rush triggered by high prices for the yellow metal.
Gold hit a record high near $1,265 an ounce in June as investors looked to precious metals for an alternative to equity or debt investments given renewed uncertainty about the economic recovery.
Venezuela sits on some of the hemisphere’s largest gold deposits but its formal mining industry is small. Russian-Canadian company Rusoro, which operates in the El Callao area, is the main private gold miner in Venezuela.
Formal miners produce about 6 tonnes of gold each year, according to official figures, with the army estimating that wildcats produce twice that amount.
The South American OPEC member nation has gold reserves of more than 360 tonnes, the Central Bank says.
Additional reporting by Diego Ore, Marianna Parraga and Enrique Pretel; Writing by Frank Daniel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Lisa Shumaker
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