Ian Farlam. File picture: Oupa Mokoena

Pretoria - Senior police officers in charge at Marikana in August 2012 should have stopped the intervention much sooner, North West police airwing commander Lt-Col Salmon Vermaak said on Thursday.

Vermaak told the Farlam Commission of Inquiry in Pretoria that he declined to take the blame for not halting the operation on August 16, 2012, because his seniors were on the scene.

He was being cross-examined by Anthony Gotz, for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).

“We have heard from a number of police witnesses that if they had known the extent of the injuries and possible deaths at scene one, they would have halted the operation immediately,” said Gotz.

“Why did you not call for a halt to the operation? You did not even make an attempt to say 'guys people are injured, if not dead', when you saw the operation continue.”

Vermaak said he was not the overall commander of the intervention during strike-related unrest at Lonmin's platinum mining operations at Marikana, near Rustenburg in North West.

And, even though he was airwing commander, he was not informed that the overall commander, North West deputy police chief William Mpembe, had also taken to the sky in another helicopter.

“If they didn't listen to me prior (to the confrontation with miners) just imagine if I had told them to stop an operation which I had objected against. Why would they listen to me?” Vermaak asked.

“I mentioned twice from the chopper that there were bodies down, not knowing whether they were dead or injured. That was what was expected from me. At that scene were senior officers, colonels, and it should be their responsibility to inform the JOC (joint operations centre), they were standing next to the bodies.”

Gotz asked Vermaak whether he, as a senior commander, would be prepared to share part of the blame for not halting the Marikana

operation after it went wrong.

Vermaak responded: “To blame me and say I was supposed to stop the operation is unfair. I was the eye in the sky, giving feedback to them. I have said to this commission if I made a mistake, I will admit it.

“They didn't decide to stop the operation when they heard that people were down. I counted for the first time it was 18 people down, then it was 25.”

Vermaak said Maj-Gen Charl Annandale, who headed the police tactical response team during the labour-related unrest at Marikana, and Lt-Col Duncan Scott, who drew up the police plan to deal with the protesting strikers, should have halted the police action.

Vermaak had 16 years experience as a commander in the public order policing (POP) unit before becoming North West provincial air wing commander - a position he holds now.

He said he strongly believed the operation should have been stopped after the shooting of the first protesters.

Two police officers - Warrant Officers Sello Leepaku and Tsietsi Monene - were hacked to death on August 13, 2012 in a confrontation between the protesting miners and police near a railway line at Marikana. Three miners were killed.

Three days later, on August 16, 34 people, mostly striking miners, were shot dead and 78 people were wounded when police fired on a group gathered at a hill near the mine while allegedly trying to disarm and disperse them.

In the preceding week, 10 people, including the two policemen and two security guards, were killed in the strike-related violence.

The commission led by retired judge Ian Farlam is probing the 44 deaths.