* Children at risk from collapses, mercury poisoning
* Government says committed to ending the practice
* Tanzania is Africa's fourth-largest gold producer
By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM, Aug 28 (Reuters) - The Tanzanian government said it was committed to stamping out child labour in small-scale gold mines after a U.S. rights group said thousands of minors were at risk from working in dangerous conditions.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said children as young as eight years old were working in small mines in Tanzania, Africa's fourth-largest gold producer.
They are at risk of injury from pit collapses and accidents with tools as well as of long-term health damage from exposure to mercury, breathing dust and carrying heavy loads, it said.
"Child labour is a serious problem in small-scale mines," Tanzania's deputy energy and minerals minister, Stephen Masele, told Reuters on Wednesday, the same day the report was published.
"More advocacy is needed to ensure parents understand the importance of education for their children," he said. "We have been carrying out frequent surprise inspections at mines to crack down on this problem."
There are more than 800,000 miners working in small-scale gold operations in Tanzania, thousands of whom are children, the rights group said.
"They dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport and crush heavy bags of gold ore," said the report titled, "Toxic Toil: Child Labour and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania's Small-Scale Gold Mines."
The government has pledged to end the practice, but Human Rights Watch said it was not doing enough.
"On paper, Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labour in mining, but the government has done far too little to enforce them," said Janine Morna, a researcher at the rights group.
"Labour inspectors need to visit both licensed and unlicensed mines regularly and ensure employers face sanctions for using child labour," she said.
The group said girls who work on or near mining sites sometimes become victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. (Editing by Edmund Blair and Jane Baird)