Fiji troops take over Australian mine

Fiji troops take over Australian mine

Armed Fijian troops have taken over a failed gold mine owned by an Australian-listed company after some 1,600 local workers were sacked.

Emperor Mines, which owns the Vatukoula mine in Fiji’s west, said armed troops arrived at the site over the weekend, demanding keys and access to critical infrastructure.

The mine – previously Fiji’s largest private employer – was closed on December 5, the same day military strongman Frank Bainimarama overthrew the elected government of Laisenia Qarase in a bloodless coup.

Emperor spokesman Patrick Bindon said the company had been working with the military since then, trying to explain its decision to cease mining operations after four years of losses.

The closure has cost 1,600 local workers their jobs. About 100 Fijians remain employed there, as maintenance and exploration work continues to see if the mine can be reopened.

But Mr Bindon said Emperor had been forced to order local workers not to attend work after armed members of the military occupied the site on Saturday night. The company has since repatriated a handful of Australians who worked at the mine.

“They arrived, they wanted the keys to various buildings and parts of the mine, and the management … did hand over those keys,” Mr Bindon said.

“It was a surprise because we had been having discussions with a military-appointed closure committee about those issues and we thought that process had been going well.

“For the time being, we will leave senior management in Australia and they won’t return to Fiji until we get certain assurances from the military about their safety and other issues.”

The military officers – who included Bainimarama’s trusted Military Land Force commander Colonel Pita Driti – told mine managers they were “acting on orders from above” to secure the site, Mr Bindon said.

However, the military denied it had taken over the mine, saying armed troops were simply guarding it.

“No, no, no. They haven’t taken over,” military spokesman Major Neumi Leweni said.

“There are soldiers there but we haven’t taken it over. They are there for security reasons.”

The military has told local media that troops had gone to the site to ensure documents associated with an investigation into the mine’s closure were not destroyed.

Bainimarama – sworn in as interim prime minister last week – had promised in the days after the coup a military investigation into the circumstances leading up to the mine’s closure.

“There is a team that has been set up by the interim government to look into events at the gold mine,” Leweni said.

Mr Bindon said Emperor Chief Executive Brad Gordon was in meetings with senior military and public service figures to try to clarify the interim government’s intentions for the mine.

“There have been a number of different explanations over the past couple of days about why things are happening – they have said they are simply guarding the explosives, that they are acting on credible information that records were to be destroyed – a range of things,” he said.

After more than 70 years of operation, Emperor says the gold mine has become commercially unviable.

A financial review carried out last year found it would lose $US60 million ($A77 million) over the next two years if mining activity continued.

The company says further exploration work may find a way to continue some mining operations.

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