Accra, Ghana – Heavily armed soldiers fired shots to disperse protesters on Tuesday in the gold mining town of Obuasi in the Ashanti region of Ghana, following an incident at a nearby mine.
An official and eyewitnesses said residents had gathered outside the local police station, chanting, burning car tyres and blocking roads.
Illegal mining is widespread in the country where many in poor communities see it as a way of making a living.
“We are not illegal miners. That’s an abandoned site, we only go there for our daily bread,” said Prince Adutwum, 37, in reference to an underground shaft where the arrests were made.
“We want them to release our brothers because they’ve done nothing wrong.”
He said soldiers fired “several shots” and described the scene as “a war zone”.
A local journalist sent footage to AFP showing heavily armed soldiers on the streets of Obuasi and said he had to “take cover”.
Neither the police nor the military responded to AFP’s requests for comments.
The town’s mayor Faustina Amissah confirmed that soldiers had been deployed on Tuesday.
“It was becoming chaotic so the security officers did what was lawful to maintain peace,” she said, adding that protesters had “vandalised a bus carrying 52 suspects to the police station.”
On Monday, seven illegal miners were detained after exiting a shaft belonging to one of the world’s largest gold miners AngloGold, according to the company.
Reports then trickled in that hundreds of other illegal miners were trapped underground.
But the company refuted those claims and said in a statement on Tuesday that “unauthorised persons underground are able to exit.”
“No person underground has been confined in any way and the main exit ramp from the mine remains open.”
It said the individuals, who were reported to be in a remote area far from active mining zones, were “encouraged to leave the mine at any time by the exit points where public security personnel remain on standby.”
“More (illegal miners) have come out,” a company spokesperson said late on Tuesday, without giving further details.
It was unclear how many were inside the shaft but it is possible that they were staying underground because they feared getting arrested.
Since taking office in 2017, President Nana Akufo-Addo has promised to rid the country of “galamsey”, the name given by locals to illegal mining.
The authorities regularly crack down on illegal sites, taking away excavators, but still the practice continues.
The Obuasi mine, which extends up to 1,500 metres beneath the surface, produced 250,000 ounces of gold last year.