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Just two weeks after the fatal shooting of seven people at one of its Tanzanian gold mines, Barrick Gold Corp. is investigating allegations of sexual assault by about a dozen police and security guards at the same violence-plagued mine.

The Toronto-based corporate giant, the world's biggest gold miner, is already reeling from allegations of gang rape by its security guards at another of its subsidiaries, in Papua New Guinea.

The deaths and alleged abuses at the Barrick sites, which began years ago but failed to gain wide attention until recently, are accelerating Barrick's efforts to introduce stronger rules for investigating human-rights problems at its 26 mines around the world. The latest case comes as investors have been urging Canadian companies operating overseas in tough and lawless environments to push for more transparency instead of tolerating human-rights abuses.

Barrick recently became the first Canadian mining company to sign up to the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, an international set of guidelines for extractive industries, which oblige it to investigate and report any credible information about human-rights abuses at its workplaces.

At Barrick's controversial North Mara gold mine in Tanzania, investigators have interviewed about 10 women who allege that they were arrested at the mine site and sexually assaulted by company security guards or Tanzanian police over the past several years.

The allegations were discovered in the course of a review into a separate human-rights issue at the mine. A preliminary investigation by Barrick's subsidiary, African Barrick Gold, found that the allegations were credible.

African Barrick has sent in a team of independent investigators, headed by a former Australian police detective, to gather evidence in the case. The company has also given the evidence to the Tanzanian police, who have promised their own high-level investigation. The company says it is insisting on a full police investigation.

In most or all of the cases, the women told the investigators that they were taken to holding cells and coerced into sex by police and security guards, who threatened them with imprisonment if they refused.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail yesterday, Barrick said the allegations were "highly disturbing" and will be fully investigated and publicly reported. It also pledged to dismiss any employee involved in human-rights violations, or any employee who has knowledge of human-rights abuses and fails to report them.

"Barrick is deeply distressed by the evidence that has emerged," the company said.

"These deplorable crimes, if confirmed, are neither acceptable nor excusable. They send a clear message to us that we have not met the promises we have made to the community, and to ourselves, to pursue responsible mining in every location where we and our affiliates operate. We can, and will, do more."

For years, thousands of impoverished villagers around North Mara have routinely invaded the mine to grab rocks from its waste heaps, which can be processed into tiny bits of gold. There are daily confrontations between the invaders and the mine's security guards, usually reinforced by Tanzanian police.

On May 16, when an estimated 1,500 people invaded the mine, police opened fire and killed seven of them, according to a statement by Barrick. Twelve others were injured by the police gunfire. Police commanders have insisted that the police were acting in self-defence.

In previous clashes at North Mara over the past several years, at least seven other people - and perhaps many more - have been shot dead by police, according to Tanzanian media and other reports. Witnesses say the invaders are generally unarmed, although some carry hammers to break up the waste rocks and some throw stones at security vehicles when the guards try to disperse them.

In the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea, where Barrick owns 95 per cent of the Porgera gold mine, a report by Human Rights Watch this year concluded that the mine's private security force is implicated in "a pattern of violent abuses, including horrifying acts of gang rape."

The report documented five alleged incidents of gang rape by mine security personnel in 2009 and 2010, and a sixth case in 2008. One woman said she was gang raped by six guards after one of them kicked her in the face and shattered her teeth. Another said she and three other women were raped by 10 security guards, who forced her to swallow a used condom.

After it was contacted by the human-rights group, Barrick launched a series of investigations and eventually acknowledged there was "disturbing" evidence of abuses by some of its security personnel. It dismissed a number of employees, including some who knew of the misconduct and failed to report it. It also requested a police investigation, which led to a number of arrests.

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