Security officers attacked at Gupta-owned mine in Mpumalanga
Unidentified men stormed into the Gupta-owned Gloria mine in Mpumalanga and attacked security officers on duty as efforts to bring illegal miners trapped underground for more than two weeks to the surface continued.
The attack happened on Saturday, just a day after more bodies were recovered, bringing the death toll to 18, said police spokesman Brigadier Leonard Hlathi.
"A group of approximately 15 men stormed into the premises, attacking security officers who were on duty and in the process inflicted an injury on one of them by senselessly kicking him in the face, before damaging their reaction vehicle’s windscreen," said Hlathi.
"Police had to be called and on their arrival, the group scattered in different directions. At this stage it is not clear why these men were at the mine but cable theft cannot be ruled out," he added.
Some of those trapped underground were allegedly involved in stripping the non-operational mine of copper cables when a gas explosion occurred.
Others allegedly went down the shaft after the blast in a bid to rescue those who were initially trapped.
Police estimated that about 22 people were underground.
Hlathi said 16 of the deceased had been identified by their next of kin as nationals from Lesotho. One of them was South African.
One body remains unclaimed and unidentified.
When rescue efforts began two weeks ago, a man was brought to the surface alive in a critical condition.
Hlathi had said the man was to face criminal charges relating to trespassing, following his discharge from hospital.
Hlathi said "an earnest appeal is hereby made to community members who are staying in and around these mines to refrain from damaging the infrastructure of these mines. In essence, no one has the right to trespass on someone else’s property as that is purely criminal," he said.
Provincial police commissioner Lieutenant-General Mondli Zuma said that while the remaining bodies were being retrieved, there were more individuals with the same criminal intentions, prepared to risk their lives, causing more problems for authorities.
The mine, which has been non-operational for several months, forms part of the Optimum Coal assets bought by the Gupta family in 2016.
They were put into business rescue early in 2018.