KHARTOUM – Around 100 miners are estimated to have died inside a collapsed gold mine in Sudan’s Darfur region, and nine of the rescuers trying to free them have become trapped as well, a miner said Friday.
“Nine of the rescue team disappeared when the land collapsed around them” on Thursday said the miner, who had visited the scene.
The unlicensed desert gold mine in the Jebel Amir district, more than 200 km northwest of El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, began to cave in Monday.
The stench of death is now seeping out of the baked earth, the miner said. “Yesterday (Thursday) eight bodies have been found and still they are looking for the others,” he said. “According to a count by people working in the mine, the number of people inside is more than 100.”
On Thursday, the Jebel Amir district chief, Haroun al-Hassan, said “the number of people who died is more than 60,” but added it was unclear whether anyone might still be alive.
He said rescuers were using hand tools out of fear that machinery would cause a further collapse, but the ground fell around some of them anyway.
Production from unofficial gold mines has become a key revenue source for the cash-strapped government in Khartoum. It is also a tempting but dangerous occupation for residents of Sudan’s poverty-stricken western region of Darfur, which has been devastated by a decade of civil war.
A humanitarian source said earlier this year that close to 70,000 people were digging for gold in Jebel Amir.
Sudan is trying to boost exports of the precious metal and other nonpetroleum products after the separation of South Sudan two years ago stripped Khartoum of three-quarters of its crude oil production.
The lost oil used to account for most of Sudan’s export earnings and half of its fiscal revenues, sending inflation above 40 percent while its currency plunged in value on the black market.
Sudanese Mining Minister Kamal Abdel Latif said traditional mining produced 41 tons of gold worth $2.5 billion from January to November last year.
In 2011, the government estimated there were more than 200,000 unlicensed artisanal gold producers, generating most of the country’s output of the resource. Sudan’s central bank has entered the market, trying to buy from the small producers.
Seven weeks of clashes over gold between two Arab tribes in Jebel Amir early this year killed more than 500 members of the Beni Hussein tribe, a spokesman for the group has said. The violence uprooted an estimated 100,000 people.
The fighting between the Beni Hussein and Rezeigat erupted when a leader of the latter tribe who is a border guard officer apparently laid claim to a gold-rich area inside the other group’s territory, Amnesty International said.
The Beni Hussein refused to pay newly imposed government mining fees that amounted to “huge, huge money,” the rights watchdog said.
Competition for resources, from water to gold, is a key driver of conflict in Darfur, where ethnic rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in 2003. While the worst of the violence has long passed, battles between rebels and the government continue, alongside tribal disputes.