South African mine death toll hits 34


Police in South Africa have defended their actions after 34 workers were killed yesterday after police shot striking miners near Lonmin's Marikana platinum-mining complex.

South African police were forced to open fire to protect themselves from charging armed protesters, Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega said today.

She told a news conference that 78 people were injured and 259 arrested in the violence, adding: "The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group."

Heavily armed South African police patrolled the mine after the clashes, which drew comparisons with apartheid-era brutality.

President Jacob Zuma cut short a visit to a regional summit in neighbouring Mozambique to head to the mine. "We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence," he said in a statement.

Mr Zuma said he was "shocked and dismayed" at what was one of the bloodiest police operations since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

After more than 12 hours of official silence, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa this morning confirmed at least 30 people had died in the security operation at the mine, 100km northwest of Johannesburg.

Mr Mthethwa defended the police, saying officers had come under fire from the miners, members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), an upstart group that is challenging the 25-year dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a close ally of the ruling ANC.

"From amongst the crowd, people opened fire on police and the police retaliated," he said in earlier comments.

Police opened fire with automatic weapons when 3,000 striking drill operators armed with machetes and sticks ignored orders to disperse.

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