Three people are feared dead after a massive sinkhole swallowed their home in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia in a formerly nomadic grassland area that is now home to intensive mining operations, residents said on Tuesday.
Monday's cave-in in the region's Alxa (in Chinese, Alashan) League Left Banner, saw the ground fall to a depth of at least 50 meters (164 feet), eyewitnesses told RFA.
"It was very sudden," a resident of Alxa's Alunbag (in Chinese, Alunbage) township said. "They haven't even managed to dig the people out yet."
"I think that it goes down very deep; those three people are unlikely to still be alive," the resident, Urchichige, said. "Their house must have collapsed."
He blamed a local iron-ore mining operation for the accident. "It was definitely to do with the mining," he said. "The iron-ore mine has hollowed out the earth. It's been dug hollow down there."
"None of us herders knew how hollow it had become, or how far it extended," Urchichige said. "We didn't know they were tunneling because we didn't see it."
He said the mine extended as far as 200 meters (656 feet) below the surface, and that local people had already complained of disturbances from dynamiting underground.
"It's pretty bad when you're trying to sleep at night," he said.
The three people swallowed by the subsidence were from three different generations of the same herding family, according to posts on social media sites.
"Three generations were swallowed up as they lay dreaming, along with their house, their car, their tractor, a sheepfold and a few cattle," according to a Twitter-like post from user @Uighunfan.
"Three ambulances and medical staff from Jilantai township are at the scene, but they have only managed to save a few cows," the post said.
Repeated calls to the ruling Chinese Communist Party committee in Alunbag township, the Alxa League government propaganda department and the Alxa Left Banner—the administrative equivalent of a county—government rang unanswered or went unconnected during office hours on Tuesday.
A local resident surnamed Wang said the accident had happened on a hill near her house.
"I heard they hadn't found them yet; I heard they died," she said.
Clashes between Chinese companies and ethnic Mongolian herders protesting the exploitation of their grasslands are increasingly common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Rights activists say grasslands on which the herding communities depend for a living are constantly being taken over for mining and forestry exploitation, putting an end to the herders' traditional way of life.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, also complain of environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Last week, Chinese authorities detained a group of herders from Chagaan-oboo Gachaa in Heshigten Banner (in Chinese, Keshiketeng Qi) to the north of Chifeng city after they staged a sit-in protest in front of the Inner Mongolia Yindu Mining Co.
Herders told RFA that the company had been dumping toxic waste onto their grazing lands in since January, causing the death of livestock.
Intensive exploitation of coal seams in the past few decades to meet skyrocketing energy demands has undermined the geological structure of the earth in many locations across China, investigative journalists say.
Whole village swallowed
On Aug. 15, 2011, the whole of Pangpangta village in northern Shanxi province was swallowed up by subsidence.
Photos of Pangpangta village posted on Chinese news websites and bulletin boards showed houses fallen into chasms in the earth, huge cracks along a village street, and collapsed and damaged buildings similar to a scene after an earthquake.
Last June, authorities in the central province of Henan sent in riot police to disperse thousands of local residents protesting subsidence linked to a local mining operation.
More than 3,000 villagers from Henan's Xuchang county said local mining operations have devastated the ground near their homes, swallowed up a road, and left cracks in their houses.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.