By Olga Dzyubenko
BISHKEK (Reuters) - Villagers in southern Kyrgyzstan have attacked a camp of geologists working for a Russian gold-mining company, accusing them of damaging the environment.
Residents of a village in Batken region raided the camp, owned by small private miner Almazintex, on two separate occasions this month after calls to halt exploration at the site were ignored, a police spokesman and the camp operator said.
"Property was set ablaze. A criminal investigation is under way," local police spokesman Talaibek Susumbayev told Reuters on Thursday.
A new government in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished former Soviet republic that hosts both Russian and U.S. military air bases, is seeking foreign investors to mine gold, coal and other minerals and bolster its fragile economy.
Mining is crucial to the economy of the Central Asian state, which has contracted this year largely to declining output at the Kumtor mine, owned by Canada's Centerra Gold. The mine alone contributed 12 percent of the gross domestic product last year.
The only road to the high-altitude Kumtor mine has been sporadically blocked by protestors, while a spate of attacks on other mining camps in the last 18 months - often with the support of nationalist politicians - has dented investor confidence.
In Batken province, the first attack on the Aprelskoye gold deposit occurred on November 19. About 150 villagers stole food, fuel and personal possessions from the geologists, said Vladimir Smirnov, head of the company contracted to run the camp.
Seventy people returned on November 22, setting fire to a rail wagon used as a makeshift dwelling and seizing drill equipment. Nobody was harmed in the attack.
"They are demanding an end to geological work and that the deposit be recultivated," said Atambek Botoyev, deputy governor of Batken region. He said villagers had accused the company of contaminating a local river with chemicals.
This was denied by Sergei Yurchenko, head of A.Z. International, the subsidiary of Almazintex responsible for the gold deposit. He said the company had built roads and bridges over nearly a decade of work in the region.
"Perhaps someone wants to take the license away from us. Or perhaps people have been paid to do this - the population is, after all, very poor," Yurchenko said.
Villagers have frequently raised environmental concerns and demanded a greater share of proceeds at deposits nationwide. But opposition politicians have also adopted anti-mining rhetoric as a means to rally nationalist supporters against the government.
Three opposition members of parliament are awaiting trial on charges of trying to stage a coup after leading a crowd of demonstrators in a failed attempt last month to storm government headquarters in a protest over the Kumtor mine.
Kyrgyzstan was forced to cancel the sale of its first batch of mining licenses under new legislation after protesters stormed a televised auction on August 28.
Other enterprises have been attacked, including a Chinese-owned venture, a copper and gold deposit in Talas province owned by South Africa's Gold Fields and a construction firm working for London-listed Chaarat Gold.
(Writing by Robin Paxton; Editing by Mike Nesbit)