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Miners refuse to leave S.African pit after arrests

Twenty-four illegal miners have been rescued from a disused South African mine and promptly arrested, leaving the authorities struggling to coax more out because they fear detention.

What began as a desperate rescue effort on Sunday turned into a tricky negotiation a day later as crews tried a series of tactics to get the men out, including sending emergency workers into the shaft to negotiate their exit.

“There are some people still underground,” said municipal technician David Tshabalala, one of the team trying get an unknown number of miners to come to the surface.

“They are afraid of being arrested,” he said.

Luyanda Majija of emergency medical firm ER24 said rescuers had also “urged the free men to persuade their accomplices still underground to come out”.

But with police standing by with charges of illegal mining — which carry fines and even a possible prison sentence — there have only been 24 takers so far.

The rescue effort was launched on Sunday after cries for help were heard on a dusty patch of grassland in Benoni, east of Johannesburg.

The men became trapped when large rocks fell, or were pushed, to block the entrance to the shaft.

A wooden rickety makeshift ladder that was used to enter the mine was found lying near the hole, raising suspicions that a rival gang may have sabotaged the men.

But the first group of men were able to climb to safety after rescuers using excavation equipment cleared the exit.

– Century-old legacy –

Much of the area around Johannesburg is pockmarked with old mine shafts, a testament to the city’s century old history of gold mining.

While many of the mines are no longer commercially viable, they still contain enough deposits to attract scores of the city’s unemployed, and those from farther afield.

With little maintenance and rival gangs battling for the spoils, accidents are common.

Emergency workers said the miners at Benoni had managed to access the shaft despite a concrete seal.

“They managed to re-open it and used their own equipment to get underground,” said Tshabalala.

“They will be charged with illegal mining and are expected to appear in court soon,” said Benoni police spokeswoman Nomsa Sekele.

The mine is owned by mid-tier mining group Gold One International Limited, which have gold and uranium operations in southern Africa.

Security staff have now cordoned off the perimeter of the hole with barbed wire while they wait for more people to come up.

The shaft is expected to be resealed on March 3.