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As many as 36 illegal miners are believed to be trapped underground after two disused mines collapsed: 21 in a gold mine in Welkom and 15 in a diamond mine in Kleinzee in the Northern Cape.
Three men have been confirmed dead at the Bontekoe mine in Kleinzee, although only one body has been recovered.
Another miner was pulled out alive, but in shock.
Northern Cape police spokeswoman Captain Charelle Ehlers said on Wednesday that two more bodies were visible to the rescue team but, because of the unstable conditions, they could not reach them.
The hole through which the miners entered collapsed on Tuesday. It is about 6m deep and leads to several tunnels and an underground waiting area.
Ehlers explained that unstable gravel continued to fall into the tunnel, posing a risk to rescue workers. Engineers decided that a ditch would be dug alongside the tunnel, hopefully allowing rescue workers to reach the trapped miners.
Police became aware of the mine collapse when 11 of the zama-zamas, as illegal miners are known in the industry, managed to escape and raise the alarm. Ehlers said a national team from Bloemfontein had been called in to help.
Residents told reporters that people were afraid to come forward and identify the miners because they had been mining illegally.
The hole at the Bontekoe mine had been closed off by the mine’s management in April.
Ehlers said it was not possible to know for certain how many men were underground at Bontekoe, although the 11 survivors told police they were part of a group of about 30 men.
Bontekoe mine owner De Beers has expressed concern about illegal digging in the area.
In Welkom, a rescue operation to lift trapped illegal miners to the surface of a Harmony gold mine continued into Wednesday night.
At least 11 of the miners were rescued and immediately arrested for trespassing following a rescue operation that started on Tuesday after authorities were alerted that they were trapped underground.
It took the rescue teams nearly two hours to bring each miner to the surface. They all received medical attention before being taken into a police van. It was still unclear what led to the illegal miners being trapped underground, but speculation was rife among rescue workers and police on the scene that some rocks had fallen while they were digging for gold.
Fress State police on Wednesday declined to confirm the nationality of the 11 miners who had been rescued, saying the information would only be made available once an investigation had been completed.
Colonel Sam Magele said it was difficult to police illegal miners as they did the activity on privately owned property.
“When it happens, it usually involves lots of them. Right now, it’s a joint venture to bring them to the surface, give them medical attention and arrest them.
“We will be conducting an investigation to find out what really happened. We are charging them with trespassing, because they were found on a property where they are not allowed to be.
“We hope that by the end of our investigation we’ll know exactly what happened and investigate all other claims related to illegal mining at this shaft,” said Magele.
Two illegal miners raised the alarm on Tuesday, saying fellow zama-zamas were trapped underground following a rockfall.
Owner Harmony had sealed the disused mine but illegal miners, many of them from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho, had burrowed in under illegal organised supervision.
Cape Argus, Pretoria News