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S. African Mine Rescue Halted After Miners Refuse to Leave

South African authorities say rescue efforts at an illegal gold mining operation were suspended overnight Sunday, after police arrested the first 11 miners lifted to safety and the rest refused to leave the shaft.

Officials made contact earlier Sunday with about 30 of the trapped miners, who reported that nearly 200 others were stuck in tunnels deep below the surface.

Authorities had not confirmed that total by late Sunday. But emergency crews who unblocked the shaft said they had left a ladder at the site for other miners to use if they decide to leave overnight.

South African media quotes authorities as saying they suspect the miners in Gauteng province were robbed by a rival group who then used boulders to trap the miners below ground. Police are reported to be investigating the allegations, but no official statements had been released.

The miners are thought to have entered the mine Saturday after illegally digging an entry tunnel near the abandoned shaft. They were discovered after police patrolling the area heard calls for help.

Illegal mining is common in South Africa, a major producer of gold and platinum. Some analysts say the problem is exacerbated by mining layoffs that force skilled workers to turn to illegal activities.

The South African Department of Mineral Resources posted a statement on Twitter Sunday saying "the issue of illegal mining remains a serious concern” and that it “continue[s] to work with law enforcement agencies in this regard."