Chinese authorities have launched a massive rescue operation after more than 80 workers were buried Friday in a landslide in a contentious mining area in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Tibetan sources and state media reported.
Workers of a subsidiary of China National Gold Group Corp., a state-owned enterprise and the country's largest gold producer, in Lhasa prefecture's Maldro Gongkar (in Chinese, Mozhugongka) county were swept through by huge wave of mud, rock, and debris as they were resting, the sources said.
"There are also Tibetans among those who disappeared under the collapsed mine," a Tibetan source told RFA's Tibetan Service.
The official Xinhua news agency said almost all of them were national ethnic majority Han Chinese migrant workers from the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, and two of them were ethnic Tibetans who worked for the mining firm.
There was no news of survivors from the vast affected area covering around 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles) in the mountainous region.
"So far, no," a staff at the office the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Maldro Gongkar office told RFA's Mandarin Service when asked about the prospect of survivors. "So far we have not had any news."
"We are not very clear on the situation on the ground. It’s in a high-altitude area with no telephone signal. We cannot get in touch [with people in the area]."
Asked about the cause of the landslide, the staff said, "That also is unclear."
"All our supervisors have gone there. We are at the county level. Leaders from the Autonomous Region and Lhasa City are in charge. We have not received too much information."
The largely mountainous areas of the TAR are prone to landslides worsened by heavy mining activity pursued by Han Chinese backed by the state-owned groups.
"In the past the local Tibetans lodged complaints against the Chinese mining company for its excavations and their impact on the local population and livestock," the Tibetan source said.
"The leader of the local Tibetan community was detained for protesting against the mining activities. Under the impact of mining in the area, several livestock perished."
A total of 1,000 police, firefighters and doctors were sent to the disaster site, at an altitude of 4,600 meters (1,5092 feet), with 200 vehicles and 15 dogs, and sets of life-detecting equipment, Xinhua reported.
It said the landslide struck at about 6 a.m. and that rescue efforts would be "very difficult" due to the size of the affected area.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have told local authorities to spare no efforts to rescue the buried and prevent secondary disasters, Xinhua said.
They also urged officials to determine the cause of the landslide.
Mining operations in Tibetan regions have led to frequent standoffs with Tibetans who accuse Chinese firms of disrupting sites of spiritual significance and polluting the environment as they extract local wealth.
In August 2012, Tibetan nomads drove Chinese gold miners away from a sacred mountain in China’s Qinghai province, vowing to give up their lives if necessary to protect the site, the abode of a local god, according to Tibetan sources.
In the same month, Chinese security forces shot dead a Tibetan and detained six others as they dispersed a crowd of 1,000 Tibetans protesting the resumption of mining operations in Markham county in Tibet.
Chinese official media reported in 2011 that investment in the exploration of mineral resources in the TAR will be accelerated over a five-year period.
Tibet has large proven and potential reserves of vital deposits, the Xinhua news agency reported.
Initial studies show that the TAR has China’s largest chromium and copper reserves, while most of its iron, gold, silver, potassium, oil, and natural gas reserves remain unexplored, the report said.
In January, Tibetan sources told RFA that Chinese mining operations are damaging the environment in a county outside Lhasa, destroying farmers’ fields and forcing herders to move away from traditional grazing areas.
Citing local sources, an exile-based Tibetan described the impact of the mine, located near Dun village in the Khartse township of Lhundrub (in Chinese, Linzhou) county, on local forests, grassland, and drinking water as “severe.”
Waste from the mines in operation since 2005 "has been dumped in the local river, and mining activities have polluted the air,” one source said.
“Pollution has hampered the growth of grass in the area, and many animals have died of hunger,” the source said.
Of the 10,000 miners believed by locals to be working at the mine, only three are known to be Tibetans, the source said, adding, “The Chinese workers were all brought in from the mainland.”
Reported by Dolkar for RFA's Tibetan Service and Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Jennifer Chou and Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.