BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's armed forces raided 63 illegal mines operated by leftist FARC guerrillas on Monday, blowing up machinery and arresting dozens, in an operation the defense minister said will deprive FARC of $9 million a month.
"Illegal mining generates illicit finances for illegal groups and destroys the environment," minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said after the raids. "We're talking about the heaviest blow to illegal and criminal mining in at least a decade."
Illegal mining of gold, coltan, tungsten and other minerals has become a big source of income on top of extortion and narcotrafficking activity for FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which has been fighting the government for 50 years.
Pinzon said 600 troops took part in the offensive in several locations in the east of the country, arriving by air, land and along rivers, arresting 59 people and destroying pumps and dredging equipment to extract gold from riverbed sediment.
Images shown on television news showed machinery being destroyed with explosives and several deserted mining pits.
In sectors like gold, legally registered, tax-paying companies produce only about one-fifth of the roughly 57 tonnes Colombia produces a year, a top Colombian mining executive estimated last week.
The FARC is now far advanced in peace talks with the government taking place in Havana which aim to end the five-decade war that has killed around 220,000. Last December the movement announced a unilateral ceasefire.
Monday's strike at a key source of FARC funding may take some of the heat off President Juan Manuel Santos, who has come under opposition fire for deciding to end crop-dusting flights that kill coca plants used to make cocaine.
Santos took the decision in light of evidence the glyphosate herbicide used could cause cancer but opponents say coca production, and the FARC's coffers, will swell as a result. Santos says other means of eradication will be considered.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Ted Botha)