42 MINE deaths still a mystery

POLICE in Welkom, Free State, are looking for the relatives of 42 illegal miners who were found dead at a disused mine shaft.

Police said 15 bodies were found on Sunday while the rest were retrieved yesterday.

None of the dead have been identified. "We are confronted with this problem of illegal mining, and we appeal to people who might not be able to account for their next of kin to come to the Welkom mortuary to identify their friends or relatives," said acting provincial commissioner Thapelo Mamabolo.

The dead were taken out of a disused Eiland mine shaft. The area is now used for pumping out water by a private contractor. Police said they were not sure how the people died. Earlier reports said there was an explosion underground and a fire but police said there was no sign that the people were burnt.

"It appears like their skins reacted to something like a chemical. Some bodies were swollen while others had sores, but they were not burnt," head of detectives Director Jacob Tsumane said.

Tsumane said it was not known how long the people had been underground.

"These people work in syndicates and they are the only ones who know what happened. We got an anonymous call on Saturday alerting us to this tragedy. We investigated and went in on Sunday afternoon. We found them 1600m underground. We found the first 15 bodies and brought them out."

Other bodies were found in other areas of the shaft at the same level. Nobody was found alive.

Tsumane said illegal miners normally have others stationed on the ground level to warn them of police patrols. "We believe it was those people on the ground who called the police."

The deceased were brought up by normal mine lifts by rescuers.

Postmortems will be performed to determine the causes of death.

Illegal miners bribe security guards and other personnel to gain access to the mines. Tsumane said they have in the past made arrests because of illegal mining activities.

"At first it seemed like isolated incidents but recently these people are organised and operate in a syndicate," said Tsumane.

Police said they suspected that the illegal miners had entered the mine 30km away in Odendaalsrus, and worked their way to Welkom were they died. Illegal miners usually use unguarded entrances.

In 2007, at least 27 illegal miners were found burnt to death at another disused mine shaft. Some of those found dead came from neighbouring countries like Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.