Small scale gold miners in Zimbabwe say a government crackdown targeting illegal mines has left hundreds of thousands of miners with no way of supporting themselves. The government says it has arrested about 20,000 illegal gold panners, who it accuses of selling their gold on the black market, but as Peta Thornycroft reports for VOA, many of those who have been detained say they have claims registered with the Ministry of Mines.

The arrests began in late November and continue. Several small scale miners who are registered with the Ministry of Mines say they have been stopped mining.

They say the police and officials from the central bank have closed their mines and put them under guard.

Others say their plants, which crush rocks for smelting, are being forced to operate under police guard, processing mined material, they say has been confiscated by the government from other small scale miners.

One miner, who operates in western Zimbabwe and has a fully established claim and a processing plant, and who asked not to be named, was in detention in late December.

He said he saw several hundred legal and illegal miners, some of them handcuffed to each other, held in a fenced field next to the Inyathi Police station in Western Zimbabwe.

He said many of them paid small fines just to get out of prison, including some of his office staff who had been repeatedly arrested.

Home affairs minister Kembo Mohadi said the arrests were justified: "We can not allow illegal activities," he said.

Many illegal gold miners, known as panners, were formerly workers on Zimbabwe's once productive white-owned commercial farms. They lost their jobs over the last six years when President Robert Mugabe confiscated 90 percent of white-owned farms.

Chamber of Mines chief executive David Murangari confirmed the mass arrests, accused the miners of serious environmental damage in Zimbabwe. He said however he was still investigating arrests of the small scale, legal miners.

Zimbabwe police said they did not believe some recent news reports which claimed that three gold panners had died during the round up. They did confirm that one alleged gold panner, Shepherd Mafiga, 23, died while fleeing arrest.

Economist John Robertson said Zimbabwe's skewed exchange rate meant many people, including illegal gold panners, traded both money and goods on the black market.

Last year, President Mugabe said the government would take over 51 percent of all mines without compensation.

With 80 percent unemployment, economists say most Zimbabweans are now forced to make a living in the informal sector.

Panners were accused by police last week of desecrating cemeteries during their desperate tunneling for gold.