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South African Police, Striking Miners Engage in Shootout

JOHANNESBURG — A strike at a South African platinum mine led to a deadly shootout between police and angry workers Thursday. The number of casualties is still uncertain, but a union official reported up to 20 people may have been killed in the clash.

Armed and angry strikers gathered at South Africa’s troubled Lonmin platinum mine Thursday after days of unrest, and a confrontation with police soon turned into a gunbattle.

National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said officials were not entirely sure how many people were killed at the mine about 100 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg - one of the world's most important sources of platinum.

“At this … moment we don’t have the figures, but it looks like it may be something between 12 and 20 [dead],” Seshoka said.

A reporter from the South African Press Association said he counted 18 bodies on the ground.

The company Lonmin PLC, based in London, said some of the strikers were armed. Union spokesman Seshoka said gunfire from the workers triggered the deadly battle, but he blamed the shooting on "criminals" among them, apparently from a rival union.

“The strikers fired first, and the police didn’t realize they were in danger, because anyway two police officers have already died in the past week,” Seshoka said.

Seshoka said the union regrets the violence, but he urged the police to take action only against those who engaged in violence.

Lonmin is one of the world's largest suppliers of platinum, and almost of its production comes from the mine where the clash occurred.

Exactly what happened before shooting began is not clear. Angry protests at the mine have been under way since Friday, when 3,000 workers walked out over a pay dispute.

South Africa's ruling African National Congress condemned Thursday's violence, and noted that other incidents at the mine since Friday have killed 10 mineworkers.

The mine's owners say violence may have grown out of a conflict between the National Union of Mineworkers and a rival labor group, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

The National Union of Mineworkers' Seshoka said workers at the Lonmin mine had been infiltrated by “criminals.”

“We are told that in fact they wanted a 200-percent [increase], which is unlike them. But they were influenced by a group of criminals to hold the country, as well as the mines, to ransom. This is totally not acceptable,” Seshoka said.

Attempts to reach the ACMU were unsuccessful. The rival labor group has been competing with the mineworkers' union for representation rights at many mines.

Strikes are common in South Africa, which has a strong confederation of unions and a large pool of menial workers.

Lonmin said it has already lost six days' output from the mine, and will be unable to meet its production goal of 750,000 ounces of platinum this year.