JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African police officers killed more than 30 striking workers at a Lonmin PLC platinum mine who charged a line of officers trying to disperse them, authorities said Friday.
The shooting Thursday is one of the worst in South Africa since the end of the apartheid era.
Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi told The Associated Press on Friday that more than 30 people were killed. He said an investigation into the shooting near Marikana, about 70 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Johannesburg was underway.
The shooting happened Thursday afternoon after police failed to get the striking miners to hand over machetes, clubs and other weapons.
Some miners did leave, though others carrying weapons began war chants and soon started marching toward the township near the mine, said Molaole Montsho, a journalist with the South African Press Association who was at the scene.
The police opened up with a water cannon first, then used stun grenades and tear gas to try and break up the crowd, Montsho said.
Suddenly, a group of miners rushed through the underbrush and tear gas at a line of police officers. Officers immediately opened fire, with miners falling to the ground. Dozens of shots were fired by police armed with automatic rifles and pistols.
Images broadcast by private television station e.tv carried the sound of a barrage of automatic gunfire that ended with police officers shouting: "Cease fire!" By that time, bodies were lying in the dust, some pouring blood. Another image showed some miners, their eyes wide, looking in the distance at heavily armed police officers in riot gear.
It was an astonishing development in a country that has been a model of stability since racist white rule ended with South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994. The shooting recalled images of white police firing at anti-apartheid protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, but in this case it was mostly black police firing at black mine workers.
It remains unclear what sparked the miners' fatal charge at police. Mnisi, the police ministry spokesman, claimed the miners shot at police as well, using one of the weapons they stole from officers Monday.
"We had a situation where people who were armed to the teeth, attack and killed others — even police officers," the spokesman said in a statement Thursday night. "What should police do in such situations when clearly what they are face with are armed and hardcore criminals who murder police?"
President Jacob Zuma said he was "shocked and dismayed at this senseless violence."
"We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence," Zuma said in a statement.
Barnard O. Mokwena, an executive vice president at Lonmin, would say only: "It's a police operation." In a statement earlier Thursday, Lonmin had said striking workers would be fired if they did not appear at their shifts Friday.
"The striking (workers) remain armed and away from work," the statement read. "This is illegal."
While the initial walkout and protest focused on wages, the ensuing violence has been fueled by the struggles between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. Disputes between the two unions escalated into violence earlier this year at another mine.
Mining drives the economy of South Africa, which remains one of the world's dominant producers of platinum, gold and chromium. Lonmin is the world's third largest platinum producer and its mine at Marikana produces 96 percent of all its platinum. The violence has shaken the precious metals market, as platinum futures ended up $39, or 2.8 percent, at $1,435.20 an ounce in trading Thursday on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Lonmin stock plunged 6.76 percent Thursday on the London Stock Exchange. The company's stock value has dropped more than 12 percent since the start of the unrest.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .