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ULAN BATOR, Nov 20: Mongolia has suspended almost half of the country’s mining licences more than a year after the government passed a law to protect the landlocked country’s environment, according to local media.

The resources and energy ministry has suspended nearly 1,800 licences pending a government review, the Ardyn Erkh, or People’s Right, newspaper reported Thursday. Some 254 gold mining licences were also to be cancelled.

It was not clear which companies would be affected or if the licences under review also related to gold mining.

Resources and energy minister Dashdorj Zorigt declined to comment when contacted by AFP on Saturday.

The gold mining licences appear to have been revoked under a law passed in July 2009 that prohibits mining in forested areas and river basins, which account for less than 10 per cent of the largely desert country.

Most of the 254 licences were issued after 2000 with some handed out as recently as August this year, the Zuuny Medee, or Century News, newspaper said on Friday.

Zorigt told reporters last week that compensation claims filed by the affected mining companies would be considered.

The number of licences under review compares with more than 4,000 that the country has issued to date.

It follows pressure from environmental groups to shut down mines that breach the country’s environmental laws.

Green groups staged protests in the capital Ulan Bator last month demanding that the government resign if it did not crack down on offenders.

But some activists criticised the government review as not going far enough.

“This was a token gesture to the environmentalists; there is much more work that needs to be done,” Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, head of the Ongi River Movement, one of the organisations that led the protest, told AFP.

Munkhbayar said the government should fulfil a promise to protect 30 per cent of Mongolia from development. So far it has set aside 14.5 per cent.

Mongolia, which is wedged between China and Russia, has struggled to develop its economy since turning to capitalism two decades ago.

But its rich deposits of copper, gold, uranium, silver and oil have caught the eye of foreign investors.

Last year, the government sealed a multi-billion-dollar deal with Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines and Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto to develop one of the world’s richest copper deposits, after years of negotiations.

Analysts said at the time that the deal would provide a “blueprint” for foreign investors wanting to access Mongolia’s rich deposits of copper, gold, uranium, silver and oil.—AFP