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South African miners target of major police crackdown

South African police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a group of mine workers, near the site of last month's massacre. It comes after an early-morning raid on worker hostels.

On Saturday, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to break up a crowd who had gathered at a field in Marikana, the town at the center of a long-running standoff between striking workers and the platinum mine owner Lonmin.

Workers are believed to have thrown rocks at the officers in the latest escalation of a conflict which saw 45 miners killed last month.

Hours earlier some 500 police officers raided worker hostels at the Karee platinum mine, arresting at least five people and seizing machetes and spears.

"Five hundred [officers] intervened at 2:00 a.m. in an area with hostels where about 600 miners are residing around Marikana," regional police spokesman Thulani Ngubane told the AFP news agency. "We took pangas [machetes] and [other] dangerous weapons."

"The aim of the operation was to make sure that we disarm and to ensure that we reclaim Marikana, and we restore peace and stability in the area of Marikana," said Ngubane. "They continue to murder and kill people with the very dangerous weapons that they carry on a daily basis."

The South African government had announced on Friday that it was launching security operations to crack down on illegal gatherings, prohibited weapons and incitements to threats of violence amid growing labor unrest in South Africa's Rustenburg platinum belt, located in the country's northwest.

But Lonmin's strike mediator warned Saturday that the police crackdown on mine workers could make the crisis worse.

"I am particularly concerned that government's present action will in fact lead to the worsening of the situation and eventually to a complete revolt across the platinum belt," said Anglican Bishop Jo Seoka in a statement.

Marikana massacre

On August 17, police shot 34 miners dead at Marikana as they sought to break up wildcat strikes in which workers were demanding pay raises from the London-listed Lonmin company, the world's third largest platinum producer. The workers are demanding that their pay be more than doubled to 12,500 rand ($1,479 or 1,160 euros) per month.

At least 10 people, including several security personnel, were killed in labor-related unrest in the run up to the Marikana massacre.

The violence broke out against the backdrop of an ongoing turf war between two unions, as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union sought to expand its membership against the National Union of Mineworkers, which is close to the governing African National Congress party.

South African authorities sparked public outrage when they arrested some 270 miners on charges of complicity in the deaths of their 34 colleagues. They had been charged under "common purpose law," an apartheid era legal provision. Prosecutors argued that the miners had acted with a "common purpose" in the deaths of their colleagues.

The charges were later dropped pending the completion of an investigation and all the miners were released from custody.

slk, jr/ccp (AFP, Reuters)