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Published: Sunday February 16, 2014 MYT 10:41:05 PM
Updated: Sunday February 16, 2014 MYT 10:41:51 PM

South African rescuers try to reach over 200 illegal miners

BENONI, South Africa (Reuters) - South African rescuers were trying to reach more than 200 illegal miners reported trapped underground in an abandoned gold shaft in a suburb just east of Johannesburg on Sunday, an emergency services spokesman said.

Werner Vermaak of ER24 emergency services told Reuters rescuers were communicating with a group of about 30 miners trapped below the surface by fallen boulders at the old mine site in Benoni.

"They told us there are about 200 others trapped further below," Vermaak said.

"It's an abandoned mine shaft in the middle of the public veld (open fields) ... it was not a blocked-off area," he said, adding that no injuries or casualties had been reported so far.

Heavy equipment was brought in to try to remove the boulders, and a Reuters reporter saw ropes and a hoist being lowered into the shaft. There was a heavy police presence.

A spokesman for the Chinese-owned bullion producer Gold One, which has prospecting rights to the mine but is not currently working it, said drinking water had been lowered to the miners and it was hoped they would be freed by the end of the day.

Illegal mining of abandoned shafts is common in South Africa, where informal miners excavate ore to sell, often living underground in dangerous and precarious conditions. Fatal accidents are common, and underground battles between rival groups have also been reported.

ER24's Vermaak said a police patrol had been alerted by shouts from the miners trapped in the shaft.

The Gold One spokesman, Grant Stuart, said the miners were trapped in the "New Kleinfontein 6" ventilation shaft, which had been closed off with concrete slabs.

"The illegal miners have dug a tunnel right next to it to access the shaft and it has collapsed behind them," he said, adding that heavy rain may have triggered the collapse.

Gold One delisted last month from the Johannesburg and Australian bourses after all of its share capital was acquired by BCX Gold Investment Holdings, a Chinese consortium.

(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Ed Stoddard and Mish Molakeng; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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