BISHKEK, October 7 (RIA Novosti) – Violence flared on Monday in Kyrgyzstan in the latest bout of protests over a controversial Canadian-owned gold mine that for years has been a target of political wrangling and extortion schemes.
Hundreds of protesters who gathered in front of a government building in Karakol, the administrative center of the northeast Issyk-Kul Province, reportedly demanded the nationalization of the country's largest gold-mining enterprise, the Kumtor Gold Company.
The rally, which started rather peacefully in the afternoon, turned into violent clashes between protesters and riot police as the evening descended.
The Kyrgyz Interior Ministry said Monday that the angry crowd pelted police with rocks, injuring at least five officers. Police made attempts to disperse the crowd with tear gas and stun grenades. There have been no official reports of casualties among the rioters.
The ministry also said the province’s governor, Emil Kaptagaev, was taken hostage by protesters and kept in a car for several hours before being rescued by police.
According to the ministry, five rioters have been detained so far while a criminal probe into the governor’s kidnapping has been launched.
Kyrgyz media reported that despite police efforts the violence continued into the late hours of Monday with rioters threatening to storm the government building.
The Canadian-run Kumtor gold mine is the largest in Central Asia and produced more than 8.4 million ounces of gold between 1997 and the end of 2011, according to the owner Centerra's website. Under a 2009 agreement, the Kyrgyzstan government acquired one-third of Centerra.
Centerra’s subsidiary, Kumtor Operating Company, is the largest revenue earner for Kyrgyzstan’s national budget, and accounted for 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and over half of its industrial output in 2011, according to government statistics.
Centerra currently pays a 13 percent tax on its gross revenue and another 1 percent into a special fund for the development of the Issyk-Kul Province, according to the terms of the existing agreement.
Centerra reached a memorandum of understanding with Kyrgyzstan in September, paving the way for a tentative deal in which Bishkek and Centerra would form a joint venture with parity ownership.
In line with the agreement, the Canadian firm would remain the operator and manager of the mine, and would also receive $100 million, Centerra said last month.
Kyrgyz opposition, however, insists that the government’s stake in the mine should be no less than 70 percent.
Violent protests over Kumtor, which some analysts claim to be part of a well-organized anti-government action or even a “crafty” extortion scheme, have flared up sporadically in the region in the past.
Hundreds of locals blocked the road to Kumtor in late May, demanding the government to scrap the Centtera deal approved by parliament in February. At least 55 people were injured in clashes with police, while the company reportedly lost about $4 million.
In October last year, at least 12 people were injured in similar protests in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.