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ABIDJAN, March 23 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast launched an operation on Monday to shut down hundreds of illegal gold mining sites blamed for violence, unregulated immigration and environmental destruction, the defence and mining ministers said.
The West African nation is recovering from a decade-long political crisis that ended in a brief 2011 civil war, and the government is now seeking to develop the mining sector as part of efforts to diversify the economy.
Informal, unregulated gold mining became rampant during the years of turmoil due to the absence of state authority, particularly in the rebel-occupied north.
Minister of Industry and Mines Jean-Claude Brou said the operations, which will be carried out by gendarmes, will begin by dismantling 148 illegal mining sites identified in Ivory Coast's northern and central regions.
They will be extended to the eastern and western regions later in April.
"Once we've cleaned things up, those who want to work will come to the administration and seek authorisation. We'll give them training," he told journalists in the commercial capital Abidjan.
Brou said that, while laws exist to regulate the informal gold mining sector, there were no such permits currently active.
While many Ivorian gold mining sites are small-scale, poorly organised operations, analysts say a number of large mines are controlled by members of the army and security forces.
A group of U.N. experts charged with monitoring a Security Council-imposed arms embargo in Ivory Coast wrote in a 2013 report that former rebel commanders now integrated into the army were involved in the illicit gold trade.
"If there do turn out to be regular soldiers involved, they will be disciplined," Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said. "We're not going to do them any favours because they wear a uniform ... They should be the ones leading by example."
Ivory Coast is the world's leading cocoa producer and exports are still dominated by agricultural commodities. However, companies including London-listed Randgold Resources , Canada's Endeavour Mining and Australia's Newcrest Mining have launched projects aiming to exploit its largely untapped mining potential.
Ivory Coast produced 18.6 tonnes of gold in 2014. It has previously projected gold output of 25 tonnes in 2015. (Reporting by Joe Bavier; Editing by Mark Potter)