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South Africa: hundreds of miners trapped underground by protesters

Mineworkers at the entrance of a goldmine in Springs, near Johannesburg, South Africa,   -  
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South Africa

Miners are blockading more than 400 of their colleagues underground at a gold mine in South Africa on Friday, amid tensions over a murder this week, the operator said.

The blockade of 447 miners underground has been taking place since the end of the night shift on Thursday at the Springs Gold Mine, east of Johannesburg, where more than 500 miners suffered the same fate for almost three days in October, against a backdrop of rivalry between local unions.

This new mobilization was launched after the murder this week of a Gold Mine investigator who was working on the October blockade, Ziyaad Hassam, the mine's legal manager, told AFP, denouncing a "hostage situation".

According to police quoted by local media, the 55-year-old man was shot dead in his car on Tuesday. The police did not give a motive for the killing.

Hooded rebel employees took their colleagues' access badges on Thursday evening, "so they can no longer go up to the surface", added Mr. Hassam, adding that two miners who managed to get out on Friday morning confirmed this information to management.

According to the company, middle management and contract workers are among those trapped underground.

The company suspects a link between the investigator's murder and disciplinary measures decided after the October mobilization, which led to the dismissal of 50 employees.

The police, present on site to monitor the situation, did not immediately observe any improper activity, a spokeswoman said.

In a separate incident, around 250 miners demanding better wages protested at a platinum mine on Friday for their third consecutive day, according to companies and unions, but an agreement was reached to end their movement, according to local media.

The mine is located in Rustenburg, east of the capital Pretoria. They were demanding higher wages, payment of maternity leave and a halt to downsizing by the hundreds, Livhuwani Mammburu, spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), told AFP.

According to the spokesman, the miners were also protesting against the fact that the operator wanted to cut 500 jobs while at the same time recruiting new managers.

Twenty-eight demonstrators suffering from chronic illnesses had returned to the surface on Thursday. According to the ENCA television channel, around a hundred miners decided to return to the surface following discussions between the NUM and the miners, and the remaining miners are expected to follow suit.

The Ministry of Mines has expressed concern at the recent increase in the number of underground protests.

"This poses serious health and safety risks," ministry spokesman Makhosonke Buthelezi told AFP, expressing fears that injuries and even deaths could result from the mobilizations.

The mining sector employs hundreds of thousands of people in South Africa, which is rich in deposits of gold, diamonds, coal and other minerals, and is the world's leading platinum exporter.

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