JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Debris trapped men who were working illegally in an abandoned mine in South Africa, but rescue workers cleared the shaft entrance and at least 11 miners were escorted to safety Sunday, officials said.
Some of the victims still below the surface in the gold mine shaft near Johannesburg appeared to be reluctant to emerge because of fears they would be arrested, emergency responder Kobus Du Plooy said by telephone from the scene. He said he did not know how many people were still in the shaft.
Some of those who came out were dehydrated but in good spirits, Du Plooy said. Earlier, rescue vehicles and equipment were brought to the site to stabilize the ground before the rescue operation began.
They were believed to have been trapped since Saturday morning and police patrolling in the area heard their screams for help, the South African Press Association reported.
Rescue teams arriving at the scene were able to speak to about 30 miners near the top of the old shaft, whose entrance was covered by a large rock, the news agency said. Those miners said as many as 200 others were trapped further down a steep tunnel at the mine in Benoni, on the outskirts of South Africa's biggest city.
Illegal mining is common in South Africa, a major producer of gold and platinum. Workers brave unsafe conditions below ground amid reports of the involvement of organized crime and even clashes between rival groups seeking to extract precious metal from the shafts.
Illegal mining remains a serious concern, despite progress in curbing it, South Africa's mineral resources department said in a statement. It attributed the improvement to "illegal mining forums," in which stakeholders in the mining industry seal open shafts and seek to detain illegal miners.
Some analysts say the problem could increase if legal mines close or downsize, forcing skilled workers who have lost their jobs to turn to illegal activities. South Africa's mining industry, a pillar of the economy, is struggling with rising costs. Tens of thousands of workers in the platinum sector are currently on strike.