About 40 masked attackers raided the facilities of a prospective gold mine in northern Greece overnight Sunday, setting machinery and offices alight, authorities said.
A police officer said employees told them the intruders tied up two security guards and doused them with gasoline, threatening to set them on fire. One of the guards was kicked and sought hospital treatment for bruises and respiratory problems, while the remaining 10 guards employed by the company at the facility fled, the officer said on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
There has long been opposition to the prospect of a gold mine and processing plant being built at Skouries in the Halkidiki peninsula, with some residents objecting to what they say will be the destruction of the environment and of pristine forest in the area, leading to the loss of tourism and other local activities such as farming, the rearing of livestock and fishing.
The mining company, Hellas Gold, is 95 percent owned by Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold Inc. The Greek government has been eager for the foreign investment as it struggles through a deep financial crisis. But the dispute has led to frequent protests in the area, with tear gas and firebombs used and residents trading accusations with the company about heavy-handed reactions and the use of violence.
"Hellas Gold SA regretfully announces an unprovoked attack at its installations in Skouries ... Considerable material damages were done without — fortunately — loss of life. This incidence is an escalation of the attacks against us and is not surprising...The company takes for granted that it is supported by the majority of the locals in Halkidiki ... since it took charge of the mines, in February 2012, it tripled the workforce from 400 to 1,200 permanent employees," the company said in a statement released later Sunday.
"We do not understand these attacks ... we call on the authorities to defend legality and support any investment effort in our country, which is of crucial importance for its economic recovery," the statement says. It adds that the company's measures to ensure environmental safety exceed Greek and EU standards.
The attackers left the area on foot and placed logs on a road to delay firefighters, the officer said. Police believe the attackers used several getaway vehicles stationed some distance from the mine site, the officer said.
Police said they have detained 27 people for questioning early Sunday morning but all were subsequently released.
In a later statement Sunday evening, police said they have detained a further four persons and are looking for four more. They say they have also found a full face mask, a surgical mask and bloodstains. Forensics experts are examining evidence at the site.
Mine's supporters say that 1,200 jobs have already been created in an area that is especially hard hit by long-term unemployment. About 5,000 people also applied for an additional 200 jobs at the mine, said Giorgos Arvanitis, general secretary of the local miners' union.
"Who are they who come here and burn everything and threaten our lives?" Angelos Deliyovas, a mine employee told reporters Sunday. "We care for our livelihood and our lives. We have families and kids. The state should tell us what they are going to do about this."
"Tying employees with ropes and threatening (to burn) them, this is fascism. We will not let this pass by," says Arvanitis.
The Skouries project is the latest in a complex of mining facilities in the area. Hellas Gold holds mining licenses for an area covering 317 square kilometers (122 square miles) with proven and probable reserves of lead, zinc, silver, gold and copper.
Many see the foreign investment as vital to helping Greece emerge from its economic morass, where a quarter of the workforce unemployed and the economy heading into a sixth year of recession.
"Without the company, the game is over (for the local economy)," Deliyovas said. "Those who try to shut this project, they will find us on the other side."
Opponents also argue that unlike many other countries, the Greek state gets no royalties from mine concessions other than taxes and jobs. Concessions granted in 2004 for Stratoni, one of the Halkidiki mines that is currently operating and is near Skouries, are valid until 2026 and can be renewed twice for 25 years each time, free of charge.
Opponents say the new mine, which will consist of an open pit, tunnels beneath, and processing plant, will destroy the forest and contaminate groundwater. The company rejects these claims, saying it will refill and replant the open pit once the ore has been extracted, and that all necessary care is being taken not to pollute the environment.
"We (the employees) live here; we are the first ones who want to protect the environment," Deliyovas said.
Eldorado Gold did not immediately respond to requests for comment or details about the raid.
Demetris Nellas contributed to this report from Athens, Greece.