Rescuers start bringing up trapped S.African illegal miners

by Reuters
Sunday, 16 February 2014 16:51 GMT

* At least 30 known to have been trapped

* Chinese-owned Gold One has prospecting rights over shaft

* Illegal mining common in South Africa (Updates with first miners being brought to surface)

By Mike Hutchings and John Mkhize

BENONI, South Africa, Feb 16 (Reuters) - South African rescuers started bringing to the surface at least 30 illegal miners on Sunday who had been trapped by debris in an abandoned gold shaft near Johannesburg, an emergency services spokesman said.

"So far there are four that have been removed up," ER24 spokesman Werner Vermaak said, adding that more of the group were on their way up.

They were being medically checked and then handed over to the police for questioning. There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries.

Vermaak later told Reuters that some of the miners still underground were refusing to come up, saying they did not want to be arrested.

A police patrol in the semi-rural Johannesburg suburb of Benoni, where gold has been mined for decades, had been alerted by shouts from the trapped miners.

Rescuers in yellow helmets, dark blue overalls and boots clustered around the shaft as the miners emerged into the late afternoon sunshine.

Vermaak initially said some of the trapped group had told rescuers that 200 more illegal diggers were deeper in the mine, but later said this now appeared unlikely.

"At this stage, we doubt there are any more," he said.

A crane was used to shift a large concrete slab that was obstructing the shaft belonging to the Chinese-owned bullion producer Gold One, which has prospecting rights to the mine but is not currently working it.

Illegal mining of abandoned shafts is common in South Africa, where informal miners excavate ore to sell, often living underground in dangerous and precarious conditions. Fatal accidents are common, and underground battles between rival groups have also been reported.

Gold One spokesman Grant Stuart said the miners were trapped in the "New Kleinfontein 6" ventilation shaft.

"The illegal miners have dug a tunnel right next to it to access the shaft and it has collapsed behind them," he said, adding that heavy rain may have triggered the collapse.

Gold One delisted last month from the Johannesburg and Australian bourses after all of its share capital was acquired by BCX Gold Investment Holdings, a Chinese consortium. (Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Ed Stoddard and Mish Molakeng; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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