By Crispin Dembassa-Kette
BANGUI (Reuters) - At least 25 people died when a gold mine collapsed near the Central African Republic town of Bambari, a spokesman for the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels which run the mine said on Friday.
The mine at Ndassima is carved deep into a forested hilltop about 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Seleka's military headquarters in Bambari. It is owned by Canada's Axmin but was overrun by rebels more than a year ago and now forms part of an illicit economy driving sectarian conflict in the country.
At least 27 artisanal miners were buried in the collapse of the mine on Thursday and 25 bodies have been retrieved, Ahmat Negat, the rebel group's spokesman, said.
The mine collapse is the latest setback for the country, which has been beset by sectarian violence between the Seleka rebels and Christian militia for over a year. Interim President Catherine Samba Panza on Friday stepped up plans to form a new government in a bid to help stabilize the mineral-rich country.
A senior official at the Ministry of Mines confirmed the mine collapse and casualties. He said the mine did not follow regulations and miners were working in dangerous conditions.
"Nobody from our service is on the ground to regulate the miners so they dig without any rules. Lower than three metres it gets dangerous and with rain there can be collapses," the official, Georges Yacinth-Oubaouba, told Reuters.
At Ndassima, labourers toil under the gaze of Seleka gunmen to produce some 15 kilos of gold a month. This is worth roughly $350,000 on the local market, or double that in international trade.
Axmin suspended activity at the mine in late 2012 after rebels occupied its camp. The firm has said since then that it was monitoring the situation at the mine.
The Seleka, a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels and some fighters from neighbouring Chad and Sudan, seized power in March 2013, triggering sectarian violence with Christian militia in which thousands have died and more than a million people have had to flee their homes.
Some 2,000 French and 6,000 African Union peacekeepers have been deployed to Central African Republic, but they have struggled to help the weak transitional government stamp its authority on the country.
Interim President Catherine Samba Panza took over after Seleka's leader resigned the presidency in January.
The Seleka has rejected the nomination of a new Muslim prime minister, Mahamat Kamoun, a senior advisor to hardline former President Michel Djotodia. They say they were not consulted on his appointment.
The president of the transitional parliament, Alexandre Ferdinand N'Guedet, called on Tuesday for a delay in the formation of the government, saying that there had not been enough consultation on Kamoun's appointment.
However, Samba Panza said on Friday she would ask Kamoun to form a government.
"I've decided to take the step of asking Prime Minister Mahamat Kamoun to form his government and make it public today," Panza told a news conference on Friday.
A 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force is due to start deploying next month, with much of its staff coming from the existing mission in the country.
Most Muslims have fled the south of the country in the face of violence, creating a de facto partition, and some members of the Seleka leadership have pushed for this to be formalised.
(Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Susan Fenton)