Johannesburg — An unknown number of illegal miners are refusing to be rescued from a sealed-off abandoned mine near Johannesburg because they fear arrest, South African authorities said Monday. Rescue workers believe the group was trapped by a rival gang of illegal miners. Nineteen miners had been rescued by Monday morning, rescue workers say, and police say they don't know how many people are still underground.
South African rescue officials say they are trying to coax out illegal miners from the sealed-off mine after they were discovered to be trapped over the weekend.
Werner Vermaak of private emergency medical group ER24 said rescuers have sent in food and water to the miners still trapped.
He said he didn't know exactly how many workers were still underground.
"Paramedics at the moment have sent down a miner to try to negotiate with the other miners to see if he will be able to convince them to come up and be assessed by the paramedics," said Vermaak.
Vermaak says the miners are thought to have been trapped since Friday, after they illegally dug an entry tunnel near the abandoned shaft. They were discovered Sunday after police patrolling the area heard calls for help.
South African police spokeswoman Lt. Col. Katlego Mogale said once the illegal miners are rescued, they will be arrested. She said at least 11 rescued miners will be charged in a Johannesburg-area court on Tuesday - and offered a warning to other illegal miners.
"Those who are involved in illegal mining will be arrested. Case in point: yesterday's illegal miners that were trapped underneath the mine," said Mogale.
Illegal mining is common in South Africa, a major producer of gold and platinum. The nation is also plagued with a high unemployment rate, and some analysts say the problem is exacerbated by mining layoffs that force skilled workers to turn to illegal activities.
Vermaak said gang warfare is common in the illegal mining business.
"These guys were trapped when boulders were thrown back into the ventilation shaft, leaving these guys trapped. It is not uncommon for it to happen. It has happened before - late last year, towards the end of December, we did have a similar incident in Johannesburg where eight people were killed after they were shot by a rival group and their bodies were thrown back into a ventilation shaft," said Vermaak.
Mogale said mine security is keeping an eye on the situation. She said the holdouts say they have good reason to stay underground. "The suggestion is that they are afraid they will get arrested," said she. Mogale responded with an unequivocal "yes" to a question as to whether the miners remaining underground will be subject to arrest.
Vermaak added that a substantial number of illegal miners are also illegal immigrants to South Africa. With arrest often comes deportation.
So there they stay, trapped between a rock and a hard place.