Seven shot dead in tunnel in artisanal gold-mining region in Peru

Seven people were shot dead inside a gold-mining tunnel in a southern Peruvian region where thousands of so-called artisanal miners dig for ore high up in the Andes, the prosecutors' office said on Wednesday.

LIMA, April 24 (Reuters) - Seven people were shot dead inside a gold-mining tunnel in a southern Peruvian region where thousands of so-called artisanal miners dig for ore high up in the Andes, the prosecutors' office said on Wednesday.

Prosecutors are investigating the killings, which occurred on Monday, it added in a statement.

All seven victims were found with bullet wounds in their heads in a tunnel in La Rinconada, a sprawling gold-mining settlement at 5,100 meters (16,700 feet) above sea level known for its lawlessness and difficult working conditions.

Consecutive governments in Peru, Latin America's biggest gold producer, have pushed artisanal or so-called "informal" miners at La Rinconada to turn their operations into tax-paying businesses that adhere to safety, labor and environmental laws.

But there is little oversight of mining in La Rinconada and scant policing in the area. Local media have reported on shoot-outs, robberies or murders that take place there, often believed to be over gold or access to rich deposits.

Pictures of the crime scene provided by the prosecutors' office showed authorities wearing headlamps descending into a dark tunnel. A sign at the entry indicated the mining concession belonged to Corporacion Minera Ananea S.A.

A person who answered the phone at Corporacion Minera Ananea's headquarters in the city of Juliaca said the company would not be able to immediately provide comment.

According to Peruvian customs data, last year Corporacion Minera Ananea exported about $1.2 million of unspecified goods to Switzerland, the world's gold refining hub.

More than 40 million people around the world work in artisanal and small-scale mining where minerals including gold, diamonds and cobalt are dug up often by hand, a report by the World Bank and development organization Pact said earlier on Wednesday.

Artisanal miners at La Rinconada produced some 6.8 million fine grams of gold last year, or about nearly 5 percent of Peru's gold production, according to government data.

(Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Sandra Maler)

((mitra.taj@thomsonreuters.com; +51 (1) 277-9550; Reuters Messaging: mitra.taj.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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