S.African police launch major crackdown on mining unrest

South African police on Saturday fired rubber bullets at protesters and seized weapons from worker hostels at platinum giant Lonmin in a crackdown on mining sector unrest.

Soldiers were also deployed as back-up in the troubled Rustenburg platinum belt where militant protests have forced several mine closures since police gunned down 34 people last month at Lonmin's Marikana mine.

The troops had been sent in to Marikana as back-up at the request of the police, Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga told AFP. But the police were leading the operation, he added.

Forces moved into Marikana less than 24 hours after the government announced a security clampdown on the unrest, which has forced three leading producers to halt mines on the world's richest platinum deposits.

Soldiers helped with the police's cordon and search operation, said Mabanga.

With no more than 150 military personnel on the ground they were not there to maintain law and order or for riot control, he added.

Five hundred police officers, assisted by the army, raided hostels at Lonmin's mine at 2:00 am (0000 GMT) seizing piles of metal rods, machetes and sticks.

Later that morning, police fired tear gas to disperse gathering protesters. There were clashes as workers regrouped and threw stones at officers amid the shacks opposite the mine.

Plumes of black smoke had poured into the sky from burning tyres which workers used as barricades along with large rocks dragged across the dirt roads inside the humble settlement. But the area was calm by the afternoon.

This was the biggest show of force since officers shot dead 34 miners on August 16, the worst police bloodshed since democracy in 1994, which sparked comparisons to the apartheid-era brutality of the white-minority regime.

A mediator in Lonmin's wage talks warned that the crackdown could lead to a "complete revolt across the platinum belt".

"Government must be crazy believing that, what to me resembles an apartheid-era crackdown, can succeed," said Bishop Jo Seoka, president of the South African Council of Churches.

"We must not forget that such crackdowns in the past led to more resistance," he added.

The government could ill afford to be seen as the enemy of the people that had put it in power, he said.

Police have sworn to carry out the government's orders to stamp out the illegal gatherings, illegal weapons, incitement and threats of violence that have characterised the protests.

"The police are not going to hesitate to act," spokesman Brigadier Thulani Ngubane told AFP.

"We are going to act as we have started acting and we are going to continue doing that."

The police confirmed they had used rubber bullets and said that in addition to seven arrests of protesters at a mine on Friday police had detained at least another 12 people.

An AFP photographer saw a man bleeding after having been shot in the arm and the side of his body.

"A police nyala (armoured truck) drove past us, we were a group of women and others ran away. I just stood there watching and they shot me in my leg," Melita Ramasedi told the Sapa news agency, showing her bleeding leg. Seoka said six women had been shot and one of them had to be hospitalised.

The troubles at Lonmin, the world's third largest platinum miners, over a wage dispute in which 45 people have died, have spread to surrounding mines and to a Gold Fields mine near Johannesburg.

The world's top platinum producer Anglo American Platinum has closed five mines because of safety fears. Leading ferrochrome producer, Xstrata Alloys, and Aquarius Platinum also halted work on Friday due to the mounting protests.

President Jacob Zuma's spokesman Mac Maharaj told AFP that the actions were "very proper, firm, some people would even say, inadequate measures" given the violence and threats of intimidation...

"If we allow the situation to continue, the economy will suffer severely and we will be going down the road of lawlessness."

Mining is the backbone of South Africa's economy. It directly employs around 500,000 people and once related activities are included accounts for nearly one-fifth of gross domestic product.

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