File picture: Supplied/SAPS

Cape Town - Police in Mpumalanga have opened an inquest docket after five bodies were retrieved from the Koornfontein Gloria coal mineshaft situated at Blinkpan, the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) said on Thursday.

About 22 people, believed to be Lesotho nationals, were trapped underground at the disused mine near Middelburg from Wednesday after a gas explosion which left one person dead.

The trapped people were reportedly part of a group of 42 Lesotho nationals who went underground on Sunday and Monday in an attempt to steal copper cables. At least 20 managed to reach safety after the gas explosion, but 22 people were left behind.

The DMR said in a statement that the search and rescue operation was being delayed by lack of ventilation inside the shaft because all cables supplying power to ventilation fans at the mine had been stolen.

"Mine officials indicated that retrieval efforts are currently being hampered by the fact that the mineshaft is not safe and there is insufficient ventilation, but will resume after the electricity supply to the shaft has been restored," it said.

"The area has since been declared a crime scene and cordoned off due to the volatility of the situation. All role-players are currently at the scene, including the Mine Rescue Services."

Mpumalanga police spokesperson Brigadier Leornard Hlathi had on Wednesday said that one dead body was retrieved while another man was rescued alive. 

The Gloria mine is part of the Optimum Coal assets which were owned by the controversial Gupta family. The Gupta mine assets were put into business rescue last year. 

The mine has been closed since September and hundreds of miners have not been paid their salaries since October. Since then, the mine has grappled with an increase in cable theft. 

African News Agency (ANA)