By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Hundreds of Romanians protested on Saturday against a plan to set up Europe's biggest open-cast gold mine in a small Carpathian town, joining a wave of anti-government rallies.
For the past two weeks, thousands of citizens have gathered in cities across Romania to demand the resignation of President Traian Basescu and his close ally, Prime Minister Emil Boc, as anger over austerity measures and falling living conditions have spread.
The protesters have also criticised Basescu and the centrist coalition government for backing the gold mine project in the western town of Rosia Montana. However, most town residents support it, and also held a rally on Saturday.
The project, which aims to use cyanide to mine 314 tonnes of gold and 1,500 tonnes of silver, has drawn fierce opposition from civic rights groups and environmentalists, who say it would destroy ancient Roman gold mines and villages.
It is led by Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, majority-owned by Canada's Gabriel Resources Ltd with the Romanian government holding 19 percent.
Waving Romanian flags and banners saying "United for Rosia Montana," about 300 protesters gathered outside parliament in Bucharest. They called on the government to deny Gold Corporation an environmental permit it needs to open the mine.
"Never mind that this project is an utter environmental catastrophe waiting to happen, but it is also the worst possible business from a financial point of view for the Romanian state," said Vlad Rogati, a 61-year-old retired engineer at the rally. "We are being misled. The promised jobs for miners are an illusion."
Most of the 2,800 residents of Rosia Montana hope the project will bring jobs and money to their impoverished town, which took a hit when a state-owned gold mine closed in 2006. Only a small group of residents refuse to sell their property to make way for the mine.
Television footage showed hundreds of people at the rally. "We are standing on gold but dying of hunger," said one banner.
Gold Corporation has valued the mine at $7.5 billion, of which it said Romania would get about $4 billion in direct taxes, dividends, service providers and jobs.
The Environment Ministry said on Saturday it was still evaluating Gold Corporation's permit request, and that it would propose that the government grant it "only if there is certainty the investor will respect the best mining practices so that it will not harm the environment," according to local news agency Mediafax.
The company proposes four gold quarries over the mine's lifespan, which would destroy four mountaintops and wipe out three villages of the 16 that make up Rosia Montana, while preserving the historical centre.
(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)