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200 feared trapped in South African illegal gold mine

By AFP - Feb 16,2014 - Last updated at Feb 16,2014

JOHANNESBURG — At least 200 workers were feared trapped in an illegal gold mine in South Africa on Sunday, in the second accident in the country’s mining industry in as many weeks.

Rescuers were using heavy duty equipment to try to clear a way out for the men stuck in the mine near Johannesburg, emergency services said.

“We have got communication with about 30 trapped miners. They have told us that underneath them there’s 200 others,” Werner Vermaak, spokesman for private emergency operators ER24, told AFP.

But he said he could not independently confirm the figure of 200, while local municipality officials could only confirm 30 trapped.

The workers went down on Saturday into the mine, which has been dug illegally behind a cricket stadium in the Benoni district east of Johannesburg.

They failed to come out after boulders fell and blocked their way, municipal rescuers said.

“We are currently in the process of attempting to rescue them,” Roggers Mamaila of the Ekurhuleni municipality emergency services told AFP.

A large boulder blocking the entrance to the shaft was removed using heavy duty excavation equipment, but smaller rocks remained, making it impossible for the rescuers to go in and help bring out the miners.

But food and water has been lowered in by rope.

“They have been able to hand food and water to the illegal miners but to pull them out is proving very difficult due to the amount of rubble on the entrance,” said Vermaak.

Police on patrol nearby discovered the men when a passer-by said he had heard voices of people screaming for help from underground.

Public broadcaster SABC radio said the miners were trapped after allegedly being robbed of their gold by a rival gang on Saturday.

Accidents commonplace

No investigation has yet been launched, police said.

Accidents are commonplace in South Africa’s mines, which are the deepest in the world.

At least eight miners were killed nearly two weeks ago after an earth tremor sparked an underground blaze at a Harmony Gold mine west of Johannesburg.

In July 2009, nine workers were killed in a rock fall in a platinum mine.

The same year, at least 82 people digging illegally in an disused gold mine shaft died when a fire broke out underground.

Minerals Minister Susan Shabangu last week lashed out at the poor safety record at regulated mining operations, where 14 deaths have been recorded in the first seven weeks of this year.

“One death is one too many,” she said on Thursday.

Throughout the 20th century, an estimated 69,000 people died in South Africa’s mining industry, according to a government-sponsored commission of inquiry.

But the number of fatal accidents has fallen sharply in recent years.

According to union figures, 112 people died in the mines in 2012.

South Africa’s gold output has steadily decreased over the past 40 years, sliding from top global producer to world number six.

It produced 167,235 kilogrammes of gold in 2012. 

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