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Ecuador's largest gold and copper mines scale back as Coronavirus cases rapidly grow

QUITO, March 22 (Reuters) - Ecuador said on Sunday that its largest gold and copper mines would reduce the number of workers and scale back operations to a minimum as the country registers a rapid growth of coronavirus infections.

The Fruta del Norte gold mine, operated by Canadian company Lundin Gold Inc, and the Mirador copper mine, in the hands of Chinese consortium CRCC-Tongguan, began exporting minerals at the end of last year, income with which Ecuador projected significant revenues for its weak economy.

"What they are doing is operating at the bare minimum, which means that no equipment stops and everything requires great care," Deputy Mines Minister Fernando Benalcázar said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

The Fruta del Norte mine will temporarily suspend operations but maintain a limited workforce "to conduct care and maintenance activities and special projects in order to minimize the impacts of this temporary shutdown," Lundin Gold said in a statement. The number of workers would be reduced from the current 1,080 to between 400 and 500 people on Monday, Benalcázar added.

"Mirador is in a similar situation. They are working with 800 people out of the normal 2,400," the official explained, noting that possible cases of contagion in workers of contractor companies are being studied.

Government officials announced on Sunday that the number of new cases had increased by over 250 in a single day, bringing the total number of people with confirmed COVID-19 to 789, while the number of deaths from the virus doubled to 14.

Ecuador has adopted severe measures to prevent the spread of the virus such as a nighttime curfew, restriction on internal circulation, suspension of international flights and the partial closure of its land border.

Lundin Gold added in a statement on Twitter that the scale back in operations would continue until the Ecuadorian government allowed for the transport of materials.

Ecuacorriente, a subsidiary of the Chinese consortium that operates Mirador, reported in a statement that the company would implement various measures as the threat of the virus deepens, including prohibiting visitors to the mine with the exception of authorities and sanitation workers, suspending the transport of copper concentrate to ports, and an increase in medical personnel to attend to workers, among other prevention measures.

Projects in the advanced exploration phase will continue to operate, but those that had exploration plans for the coming weeks will be put on hold, Benalcázar said. (Reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Writing by Sarah Kinosian and Diane Craft)