At least 18 people were killed at an illegal gold mine in southern Venezuela during clashes with security forces looking to take control of the area, an official said Sunday.

The confrontation was confirmed to The Associated Press by an army officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the operation. He said it broke out Saturday when the army travelled to the Cicapra mine after receiving information that an armed gang was threatening wildcat miners in the remote area. Four assault weapons, grenades and several light firearms were seized.

Details of the incident were not released, though officials said no soldiers were among those killed.

The officer said none of the dead carried identification, but that one of those killed is believed to be a woman known locally as "the boss" who is suspected of taking control of the area following the murder last year of her brother, Anderson Rodriguez, an alleged gang leader known for his ruthless treatment of miners.

It was the most violent incident at a mine in Bolivar state since the bodies of 17 wildcat miners were found in a mass grave in 2016 after allegedly being killed by a criminal gang.

Violence has been on the rise in Bolivar as Venezuela's cash-strapped government looks to open the resource-rich area to foreign investment amid an ongoing turf war in the lawless area between criminal gangs and the military.