December 14, 2016 / 8:09 AM / 8 months ago

Rights groups welcome order to shut Thailand gold mine

Gold ore is transported on a belt at the Chatree gold mine operated by Akara Mining in Phichin in this February 17, 2011 file picture.Damir Sagolj/File Photo

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Human rights groups on Wednesday welcomed a decision by Thailand to close the country's only active gold mine by the end of the year as the mine's operator said it had laid off the employees.

Thailand's ruling junta on Tuesday said it is suspending all gold mining operations in the country from Jan. 1 "due to its impact on locals and the environment." The junta invoked Article 44 of the interim constitution which makes any action it takes final.

No new licenses for mining would be issued, it said.

In May, Thailand said it would shutter the country's only gold mine after the government said environmental concerns outweighed the economic benefits of the Chatree mine, located 280 km (174 miles) north of the capital Bangkok.

A military government investigation team in January 2015 said more than 300 people tested positive for arsenic and manganese at Chatree, which is run by Akara Resources Public Company Limited, a subsidiary of Australia's Kingsgate Consolidated Ltd .

Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based campaign group, welcomed the decision to shutter the mine.

"The implementation of this order should focus on the rehabilitation of health and environment impacts linked to gold mining operations," said Sutharee Wannasiri, a Thailand human rights specialist at Fortify Rights.

Akara Resources produced and exported 4 tonnes (4000 kg) of gold in 2015. Its license was due to expire on Dec. 31.

The company was at the center of protests by locals who said that mining activities poisoned residents, their water supply and crops.

In a statement released on Wednesday Kingsgate Chief Executive Officer Greg Foulis acknowledged the junta order and said the company "has never damaged environment or the health of the villagers."

All Akara employees have received termination letters and company compensation packages, he said.

Reporting by Cod Satrusayang; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Christian Schmollinger

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