Search ends for missing workers in Myanmar jade mine landslide: police

Workers are seen near the site of the landslide at a jade mine in Hpakant, Kachin State on Dec 27, 2015.
Workers are seen near the site of the landslide at a jade mine in Hpakant, Kachin State on Dec 27, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Rescuers in northern Myanmar called off their search for workers feared buried in a jade mine landslide, police said on Sunday, with no missing people or bodies recovered.

A wall of rocks, mud and debris careered down a hillside on Friday afternoon at Hpakant in Kachin state, the war-torn area that is the epicentre of Myanmar's secretive multi-billion-dollar jade industry.

Locals reported as many as 50 people might have been buried. But officials played down those numbers, saying only three men had been reported missing.

More than 100 people were killed in the same area in a landslide last month, highlighting the huge risks people take to fuel global - and particularly Chinese - demand for jade.

A police officer in Hpakant said rescue efforts were called off because the risk of further landslides was too great.

"The rescue process was stopped this afternoon because there were possible dangers and cracks appearing on the debris dump site," the officer, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

"We haven't found anybody and we don't know how many casualties there were," he added.

Another police officer had earlier told AFP that three people were thought to be missing. The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar Sunday reported the same figures.

The paper quoted Tin Swe Myint, head of the Hpakant Township Administration Office, as saying that the landslide took place after most workers had finished work and unlike last month's tragedy, it had not engulfed a row of shanty houses.

However a second police officer warned it was difficult to say for sure how many have been caught up in the landslide.

"We have no idea how many might be buried there," local officer Thet Zaw Oo told AFP by phone.

Myanmar's shadowy and poorly regulated jade trade is enormously dangerous, with landslides a frighteningly common hazard.

Those killed are mainly itinerant workers who scratch a living picking through the piles of waste left by large-scale industrial mining firms in hopes of stumbling across an overlooked hunk of jade that will deliver them from poverty.

A civilian rescuer who asked not to be named said the landslide site was far from Hpakant town and had no phone coverage.

"There are many cracks (in the ground), it's very dangerous for rescue teams to drive diggers there," he said, adding that locals still believed dozens could be buried.

Myanmar is the source of virtually all of the world's finest jadeite, a near-translucent green stone that is enormously prized in neighbouring China, where it is known as the "stone of heaven".

But while mining firms - many linked to the junta-era military elite - are thought to be raking in huge sums, local people complain they are shut off from the bounty.

In an October report, advocacy group Global Witness estimated that the value of Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was US$31 billion(S$43.5 billion) and said the trade might be the "biggest natural resource heist in modern history".