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Cops in gun battle with zama zamas

Published Aug 14, 2015

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Johannesburg - Heavy gunfire rattled through an abandoned mine in Ekurhuleni for several hours on Thursday as the police waged running battles with rival gangs of illegal miners – known as zama zamas.

This was as the police tried to defuse tension between the rival mining gangs at shaft 13 of the disused mine in Daveyton or flush out the zama zamas.

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The police appeared to have been caught unawares as they came under heavy attack from the zama zamas, who waged what seemed like guerrilla warfare against the police. The illegal miners occasionally came out to fight the police, only to retreat to their hideouts in the belly of the mine.

Thursday’s gunbattle was the latest in a spate of skirmishes between rival zama zama gangs. On Saturday, the bodies of four men believed to be zama zamas were found with gunshot wounds to their heads near the mineshaft.

Three weeks ago, two children were critically injured when illegal miners entered a neighbouring informal settlement before opening fire on some residents.

 Thursday’s battle started at about 5.30am when heavy gunfire was heard from the abandoned mine.

Ekurhuleni Metro Police Department (EMPD) spokesman Clifford Shongwe said the police had been patrolling since 6am when a passer-by alerted them to the gunshots near the shaft.

This prompted the police, including those from the Dog Unit, Flying Squad, Tracking and Explosives Unit, Public Order Policing and EMPD, to swoop on the mine.

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“The officers called for back-up and entered the mineshaft,” Shongwe said. As the police approached, they stumbled on two rival zama zama gangs engaging in a battle over mining territory, which escalated in a shootout.

When the armed group spotted the officers, they threw a grenade at them. Police retaliated and opened fire on the miners, shooting one in the head. “He sustained critical injuries and was taken to hospital, where he remains under police guard,” said Shongwe, adding that one of the illegal miners was arrested.

The body of a miner, believed to have been killed by a rival gang, was found at the scene.

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The police started scouring the area around the shaft, plotting what seemed like a strategy to flush out the miners. But they had to overcome some hurdles, as the conditions underground are harsh.

They had minimal equipment to execute what seemed a dangerous operation lasting several hours.

Meanwhile, the zama zamas became impatient and decided to crawl back into the shaft to evade arrest. But the police spotted them and called for back-up from their colleagues in a helicopter.

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An officer on the scene, who didn’t want to be named, told The Star of the dangers faced by the police trying to arrest the illegal miners. If officers without sufficient knowledge of the mine attempted to go underground, he warned, they could easily get lost as the shaft spanned a large area.

He said there was not sufficient space, which made breathing difficult, and that officers were unsure about the extent to which the zama zamas were armed.

The illegal miners, who are mostly foreigners, are also believed to be well trained, as most are believed to be ex-military men.

 Shongwe said a case of murder, attempted murder and possession of illegal firearms and ammunition had been opened.

The suspects were expected to appear in the Benoni Magistrate’s Court on Friday.

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