Reuters International

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia's government needs to offer more protection to mining companies who are being threatened by leftist rebels and criminal gangs in control of illegal mines, the country's mining association said on Thursday.

Illegal mining controlled by armed groups produces at least as much gold each year in the Andean country as licensed miners, who produced 59.2 million tonnes of the precious metal last year, according to industry and government estimates.

"Illegal mining has taken advantage of us," Santiago Angel, the president of the Colombian Mining Association (ACM), said in a press conference in Bogota. "We reject the threats against various mining companies and their employees by illegal groups."

The comments mark the first time the ACM has publicly decried threats by armed groups.

Angel said he hoped the government would increase the presence of security forces to prevent environmental damage and tax losses which he said reached $67 million each year.

He declined to name the companies which had received threats. Military sources told Reuters the armed groups hope to scare companies into abandoning projects.

According to recent studies, illegal mining occurs in one-third of Colombia's territory.

ACM's members include the country's largest coal miners Cerrejon - a joint venture between Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd, London- and Johannesburg-based Anglo American Plc and Swiss-based Glencore Xstrata - Prodeco, a unit of Glencore Xstrata, and Alabama-based Drummond. [DRMND.UL]

The association said coal production was 19.7 million tonnes in the first quarter, down 7.9 percent from the year-earlier period. The government has not yet released official production figures for the quarter.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta,; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Paul Simao)

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