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Police reportedly open fire on striking South African miners

August 16, 2012 | 11:40 am

South-africa-miners

This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Police opened fire Thursday on striking workers at a South African platinum mine, killing at least seven protesters, according to media reports.

The shootings came after police moved in to try to disperse workers after a week of violence at the mine, which had earlier left 10 dead, including eight miners. The other two slain were police officers reportedly hacked to death by workers armed with machetes.

The trouble occurred at Lonmin's platinum mine at Marikana, about 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg. There were conflicting reports on the number of people killed in Thursday's violence. Reuters news service said its cameraman at the scene counted seven bodies.

PHOTOS: S. African police reportedly open fire on striking miners

Reuters video showed a line of dozens of police confronting a crowd of miners who were trying to rush at them. Police opened fire and continued shooting into a cloud of dust for about two minutes. When the dust cleared and the police advanced, the bodies of seven miners were seen on the ground.

South Africans responded with horror to the violence, with some comparing the shootings to the apartheid era, when white security forces quelled township protests using live bullets.

Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, shut down operations after violent clashes broke out among striking workers six days ago as rival unions battled for dominance at the mine.

Earlier Thursday, Lonmin had warned in a statement that the strike was illegal and that any workers who did not return to work Friday would be fired.

The violence came as police tried to disperse the miners using tear gas and a water cannon.

One reporter on the scene. Poloko Tau, of the Star newspaper of Johannesburg tweeted that his contact among the miners "has just been shot dead."

"[S]cary...warzone down here, 1st shot fired," he wrote, adding, "army of cops swooped in, some people dead, live ammmunion used....we believe."

The clashes follow a struggle for supremacy between a dominant union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and a rival newcomer, the Assn. of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), for supremacy.

Before police moved in Thursday, one AMCU official, Joseph Mathunjwa, said the mine workers wouldn't disperse. "We're going nowhere. If need be, we're prepared to die here," Mathunjwa was quoted as saying by Reuters and other media.

There were reports that some miners fired at police. Under South African law, police may legally open fire if they believe their lives are in danger.

A spokesman for NUM, Lesiba Seshoka, told the Financial Mail on Thursday that traditional magic or "muti" was involved in the struggle, with "sangomas" (traditional healers) being used to undermine the NUM's power.

"We are hearing stories that muti is being widely used, there is drinking of blood and people are receiving death threats. We've heard two sangomas have received letters saying that unless the NUM is wiped out by the end of the year they will be killed. One of those sangomas was killed three weeks ago." he said.

But he rejected reports that the clashes came as a result of a union turf war, saying that criminals were to blame.

Lonmin has announced that it will fall short of its production target of 750,000 ounces of platinum for the year. Its shares slumped 6% in London on Thursday.

The company said it had lost 15,000 ounces of production due to the unrest.

For the record, Aug. 16, 1:03 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly labeled Johannesburg the capital of South Africa. It is not.

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-- Robyn Dixon

Photo: South African police check the bodies of miners shot Thursday near a platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

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