South African miners: Rescuers begin to free illegal workers trapped after boulders fall in abandoned gold mine

Rescuers say a number of the men have now been lifted to safety – and immediately handed over to police

At least 30 illegal miners have become trapped by a cave-in in South Africa after they tunnelled their way into an abandoned gold mine.

Rescue workers said they had been able to speak to a group of men who were stuck near the top of the shaft, and at least 11 have now been lifted to safety.

Werner Vermaak, a spokesperson for the South African ER24 emergency medical services, said the men had gained access to an old mine site in Benoni, a suburb just east of Johannesburg.

They are believed to have dug around concrete sealing over the entrance to the mine in order to gain access to the old shaft – but became trapped when boulders fell in the newly-excavated tunnel.

Mr Vermaak said 11 of the men had been brought up so far, and that they were being checked over by medical examiners before immediately being handed over to the police.

He initially told reporters that the men said there were about 200 others trapped further down the mine, but has now said that appears unlikely. “At this stage, we doubt there are any more,” Vermaak said.

“It's an abandoned mine shaft in the middle of the public veld (open fields) ... it was not a blocked-off area,” he said, adding that no injuries or casualties had been reported so far.

A spokesman for the Chinese-owned bullion producer Gold One, which has prospecting rights to the mine but is not currently working it, said drinking water had been lowered to the miners and it was hoped they would all be freed by the end of the day – suggesting this will not be a case like that of the 33 Chilean miners, who spent two months stuck underground.

Illegal mining of abandoned shafts is common in South Africa, where workers 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.

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