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Artisanal miners dig for gold in an open-pit concession near Dunkwa, western Ghana in this Feb. 15, 2011, file photo.STR/Reuters

A crackdown in Ghana over illegal mining in the gold-rich nation has killed a young Chinese miner and sparked a rare protest from Beijing, underscoring the challenges of growing Chinese investment in African mining.

The death of the 16-year-old Chinese boy during a raid by the authorities at a mine last week prompted Beijing to demand on Monday that Ghana undertake a full investigation and "uphold the safety and legal rights of Chinese citizens and businesses."

Ghanaian officials say the growing presence of Chinese miners has become a "real national challenge" as small-scale illegal mining by both Chinese and Ghanaians has spread across the country.

Richard Kofi Afenu, sectoral policy and planning manager at Ghana's Mineral Commission, said: "Most of these Chinese illegal miners are heavily armed and shoot at anyone that gets near them. In this case, they opened fire when police tried to arrest them," he said, referring to the raid that left the Chinese boy dead. "It is not as though police wanted to shoot them."

China is the world's biggest consumer of many commodities and despite the development aid Beijing has lavished on its African partners many Chinese resources investments in the continent face a growing backlash. China's investment in development exceeds that of the World Bank and earlier this year Beijing announced a further $20-billion (U.S.) loan package to Africa.

Ghana has seen a rapid increase in small-scale gold mining during the past two years because of high gold prices, and entrepreneurial Chinese miners are playing a growing role because of their access to imported Chinese machinery that enables them to extract gold from riverbeds more efficiently.

Ghana's crackdown on illegal mining has escalated over the past several months, with more than 90 illegal Chinese miners arrested in the raid last week, including the father and uncle of the deceased 16-year-old miner. In September, Ghana deported 38 Chinese miners who had been detained in an earlier raid, according to statements on the website of the Chinese embassy in Ghana.

China and Ghana have traditionally had close diplomatic and trade ties – Beijing even built Accra's National Theatre and wrote off the loans that paid for construction costs. Bilateral trade between the two countries was $3.47bn last year.

China's ambassador to Ghana, Gong Jianzhong, described the imprisoned Chinese miners as "victims" in an interview on Sunday with state-run Chinese radio. "The Ghana government should start from the source of the issue, crack down severely on the middlemen, the traffickers and the illegal miners, and curb their illegal activities instead of just arresting victim Chinese citizens." Under Ghanaian law foreign citizens are barred from small-scale mining but local chiefs or middlemen often covertly lease out their mining licences to Chinese groups, the ambassador said.

Ahmed Nantogmah, public affairs director for the Ghana Chamber of Mines, said illegal Chinese mining was a problem all over the country. "There are environmental issues, poor working conditions, and child labour problems because they use Ghanaian children. They pay them whatever they want, and there are no contracts or safety standards," he said. "We are trying to make sure that everyone is licensed."

He Wenping, head of Africa research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said the strong ties between China and Ghana would be little affected by the dispute. Ghanaian authorities often view illegal mining activities with "one eye closed, and one eye open," he said, because "many Ghanaians are also participating."