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61 die from illegal gold hunting in S. Africa

AT least 61 prospectors have been found dead in an abandoned gold mine in South Africa, police said yesterday.

But the tragedy is unlikely to deter others from seeking riches in the nation's hazardous network of tunnels and shafts.

The bodies were found by other illegal miners, who brought 36 to the surface over the weekend, according to the Harmony Gold mining company, which had ceased working its Eland shaft.

Another 25 bodies left at drop-off points underground were brought up yesterday, said Tom Smith, chief of operations for Harmony's southern region.

Police called on relatives to help identify the victims, and said they were investigating what might have caused the deaths.

Harmony said more bodies may be in the shaft, and suggested there could have been an underground fire. It said, however, it would not send anyone to search the shaft, and noted that such abandoned mines were "extremely dangerous."

The miners may also have died after inhaling poisonous gas sometimes found in mines, police spokesman Stephen Thankeng said.

Gold mining is a lucrative but risky practice, and about 25 percent of South Africans are now unemployed and eager to earn even a pittance.

The dangers of illegal mining can include cave-ins as well as noxious fumes or explosions from the chemicals used in extracting gold ore.

"There are still people involved despite the dangers," Thankeng said. "Around this area, it's really a problem."

South Africa is one of the world's largest gold producers and has some of the world's deepest mines. Illegal miners, often called "gold pirates," are hired through organized crime rackets that produce about US$250 million in gold a year.

They sneak in and make their way through a warren of interconnecting tunnels to the ore. There can be up to 1,000 illegal miners working one area at a time, often spending weeks or even months underground with food, drink and mail brought to them.


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