JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African rescue teams on Monday assessed whether it was safe to search an abandoned mine shaft where a number of illegal gold miners were believed to be trapped, highlighting the dangers of a shadowy activity that attracts unemployed people desperate to make a living.
Searchers had halted their work at the Johannesburg mine because of concerns about fire and poisonous gases below ground, a day after four miners were rescued. Late Monday, a rescue crew ventured into the entrance to gauge conditions in the darkness below.
The number of missing miners was unclear, with some media reports saying “several” had fainted in the tunnels after inhaling carbon monoxide.
Three illegal miners who emerged from the shaft on Monday morning were arrested. Penalties for illegal mining can include fines and prison time.
Police deployed at the site to prevent relatives from trying to go below ground to search for family members.
The gold mining industry was a foundation of the South African economy but has struggled over the years because of rising costs.
Illegal mining is increasing because of the country’s economic difficulties, and crime syndicates are often involved, South Africa’s Chamber of Mines said. Some miners blow open sealed shafts with explosives, and often stay underground for long periods without protective gear, it said.
“Illegal miners are often heavily armed and where trespassing on operating mines, set ambushes and booby traps for employees, security and rival groups of illegal miners,” the chamber said in a statement.
The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, said authorities should crack down on illegal mining syndicates. It said dust-covered miners can be seen loading sacks of material from their activities into taxis on two main roads in Johannesburg.
A major labor group, however, said authorities should consider legalizing and regulating what it called “small-scale mining” as a way to reduce the danger and rid the business of criminal groups. The group, known by its acronym COSATU, said the problem would persist as long as many South Africans are “still sitting at the bottom end of the economic pyramid.”
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