Some thirty suspected illegal miners were found dead at the bottom of a disused mine in South Africa, a month after a probable accident, in the small gold-mining town of Welkom, 250 km south of Johannesburg, the government said on Friday.
Riddled by endemic unemployment, South Africa is home to thousands of illegal miners, nicknamed "zama zamas". Some also come from Lesotho, a small kingdom landlocked within South African territory.
Those who "try and try again", in Zulu, go down mines that have been abandoned because they are often no longer profitable enough, and try to extract what precious metals, stones or even coal are left.
"According to our information, people suspected of also being illegal miners helped to recover at least three bodies, with 28 others still underground", Ernest Mulibana, spokesman for the South African Department of Mines and Energy, told AFP.
The victims died on 18 May, according to the department, which has yet to determine the exact circumstances of their deaths. The mine, formerly operated by one of the country's largest ore producers, Harmony Gold Mining Company, was in operation until the 1990s.
All the bodies must be brought to the surface, but the search is suspended at this stage. "Because of the high level of methane gas, it is currently risky for anyone to descend" into the mine, explained Mr. Mulibana.
Illegal prospecting is widespread in South Africa's former gold mining regions. Fatal incidents involving illegal miners are frequent and sometimes go unreported because survivors are afraid of being arrested if they inform the authorities.
In November, South African police discovered the bodies of 21 illegal miners in a mine being used in Krugersdorp, a town west of Johannesburg. The authorities said they believed the bodies had been moved from another disused mine to the active mine by other illegal miners so that they could be discovered.