Ecuador deploys soldiers against illegal mines in Amazonian areas

FILE PHOTO: Ecuador's indigenous patrol Aguarico river to block Amazon mining
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QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuador's government is deploying soldiers and police in nine provinces to combat illegal mining, officials said on Monday, in a bid to stamp out the unlawful mines mostly targeting gold and copper deposits.

The announcement came after some 1,000 security forces destroyed machinery in a raid on illegal miners in the eastern Amazonian provinces of Napo and Orellana.

Earlier this year, President Guillermo Lasso declared illegal mining a threat to national security, linking the practice to organized crime, including money laundering and arms and fuel trafficking.

"To the members of organized crime who insist on this activity, hear this message clearly: We're coming in with absolutely everything," Interior Minister Juan Zapata told a press conference in capital Quito.

Illegal mining is present in 21 of Ecuador's 24 provinces, Zapata said, but the plan announced on Monday targets key conflict zones in the Amazon region that are rich in biodiversity, including protected areas, as well as areas that are home to precious and base metals.

The latest operation aims to further destroy machinery, seize weapons and arrest those involved, according to Zapata.

Last weekend in Napo and Orellana, security forces reported the visible impact of the unlawful activity on local biodiversity and rivers, as well the presence of fuel in the water, Environment Minister Jose Davalos told reporters.

So far this year, raids authorized by authorities on illegal mines have documented the seizure of heavy machinery and even a helicopter.

The government has not given figures on the increase in illegal mining, nor the total number of hectares (acres) affected in the most affected areas, but it has described it is a growing activity.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Editing by Sandra Maler)