A dozen illegal miners trapped in an abandoned gold mine near Johannesburg were brought to the surface on Sunday night, but an unknown number remained underground as they fear arrest, an emergency services spokesman said.
Rescue teams said they had been communicating with the miners, who were believed to have been trapped underground since Saturday morning. The miners reportedly told emergency services that 30 people were trapped by a fallen boulder at the top of the mine, but there could be as many as 200 people deeper down in the cavern.
A police patrol in the semi-rural Johannesburg suburb of Benoni, where gold has been mined for decades, had been alerted to the situation by shouts from the trapped miners on Sunday morning.
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.
Rescue operations ceased as darkness fell last night. ER24 spokesman Werner Vermaak said 12 people had been rescued. They were checked by medics and then handed over to the police.
There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries. Private mine security guards were stationed around the mine shaft and police were on hand to arrest any other miners who came out.
Gold One spokesman Grant Stuart said the miners had been 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.
South Africa is the world’s fourth-biggest gold exporter and mining contributes 10 per cent of the country’s GDP, but the industry’s safety record has come under scrutiny.
A 2008 study of the gold sector found that an estimated $509 million (£309 million) in revenue was lost a year as a result of illegal mining, according to South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources.
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.
Reports on Sunday said the miners could have been sabotaged by a competing gang who took the gold they had mined before moving a boulder across the mine entrance, preventing them from escaping.
“It’s quite common for rival gangs to close off mines,” said Mr Vermaak.
Rescue workers Sunday night said they were sceptical about the numbers of people who could be trapped in the mine. A statement from ER24 said: “It still remains unclear if there is any truth in what the miners have told rescuers that several others are trapped in a separate section of the mine.
“Once the first group have been brought to the surface, rescue workers will make their way down to inspect and search for other miners.”
Illegal miners – also known as Zama Zama workers – are often poor men enlisted by large criminal organisations feeding networks of international smugglers. Reuters