(Bloomberg) -- Mongolia’s prime minister met with protesters in sub-zero temperatures to try and calm public anger about an estimated $120 million worth worth of missing coal. 

Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai met with protesters Wednesday to ask the crowd to trust government to investigate and punish “coal thieves,” according to news agency Ikon.mn. People have been demonstrating since Sunday in the capital Ulaanbaatar to protest reports that 385,000 tons of coal was missing from stockpiles at the border with China.

Read more: Mongolians Protest Reports of Stolen Coal in Sub-Zero Cold

Oyun-Erdene told the crowd he has formed a government probe of “unprecedented” size in response to the allegations of alleged theft of coal from the state-owned miner, promising those responsible would be punished. He also accused the crowd of “calling for chaos” and promised that the government was working to improve the economy.  

Oyun-Erdene shared a microphone with demonstrators on Wednesday while news outlets live-streamed the address, which was in the main square of the capital in -14C (7F) weather. A man stood ready at his side with an umbrella to hold up as a shield after protesters threw objects in his direction. 

The prime minister’s remarks were sometimes drowned out by chants from the crowd demanding he name those under investigation.

Mongolia’s economy has struggled even after the government ended Covid-19 controls in February, with China continuing to restrict imports due to the Covid Zero policy. Households and businesses have also been hurt by rising fuel prices, caused largely by sanctions on Russia after it invaded Ukraine. 

The prime minister told the crowd that the government had successfully resolved unpaid debts owed by state companies to the government-owned Development Bank of Mongolia, and that the bank was set to repay state-guaranteed bonds. Mongolia has indicated that the Development Bank is ready to repay a 30 billion yen ($218m) state-backed bond which is due in December next year and on Monday announced it had repaid $136.8m outstanding on a note which was due this month.

“Now we have to solve the problems related to Tavan Tolgoi and Erdenes Mongolia,” Oyun-Erdene said, referring to the state-owned miner whose stockpiles had allegedly been pilfered. He added that the government began its investigation into the miner Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi last month with an audit of the company’s operations.

The government has not yet released an estimate of the value of the missing minerals, but it could be worth as much as $120 million, based on China’s January futures contracts.

Yesterday, in an address to the nation the prime minister tried to convince people that the current situation is going to improve, calling China’s eased testing requirements “good news” for Mongolia’s exports and arguing that eased border conditions would impact inflation too. 

However, even if China further eases restrictions on imports as it looks to exit from Covid Zero, there are still factors that will drag on trade, including the incomplete railway to the border. Another problem is Mongolia uses a different standard of railway gauge, meaning all the minerals and other goods have to be transferred to new wagons to cross the border into China. 

Read more: Mongolia Pledges to Tame Soaring Inflation as Protests Swell

Wednesday was the second time the prime minister has met with protesters this year, after demonstrations in April over rising prices, stagnant wages and income disparity. Mongolia reported 14.5% inflation in November, with about half of that caused by imports. 

--With assistance from Kathy Chen, Martin Ritchie and Jason Rogers.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.