JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African police are investigating the discovery of at least 21 bodies suspected of being illegal miners that were found near an active mine in the town of Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg.
According to police, 19 bodies were discovered on Wednesday afternoon and two more were discovered on Thursday morning. Police said they suspect that the bodies were moved to the location where they were found, which is a privately-owned mine.
“We can confirm that this morning our search and rescue team went back to the scene and, as they were searching, they discovered two more bodies. They retrieved them from an open (mine) shaft,” police spokeswoman Brenda Muridili said Thursday.
Muridili said evidence found on the scene suggested the people did not die where their bodies were found but "no foul play" was suspected. The bodies would undergo autopsies, she said.
The Sowetan newspaper reported that the bodies were those of illegal miners who died when a tunnel at a different mine collapsed, although police declined to confirm that before the results of the autopsies. The Sowetan, quoting an unnamed illegal miner, said the bodies were moved so police wouldn't find where the illegal mining was taking place.
The grim discovery is the latest in a series of incidents related to illegal mining in the Krugersdorp area. In July, eight female members of a film crew were raped and robbed at an abandoned mine in the area, where they were working on a music video shoot. The incident sparked violent protests against illegal miners in surrounding communities.
Last week, rape and robbery charges against 14 men, who are also suspected of being illegal miners, were withdrawn after police couldn't link them to the rapes through DNA evidence. The men were arrested during police raids on the abandoned mine where the rapes took place.
Illegal mining is rife in South Africa, with miners known locally as “zama zamas” searching for gold at the many disused and abandoned mines in and around the Johannesburg region. Krugersdorp is a mining town on the western edge of Johannesburg.
Illegal mining gangs are considered dangerous by the police, are usually armed and are known to fight violent turf battles with rival groups. The trade is believed to be dominated by immigrants who enter illegally from neighboring countries Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
The 14 men who had rape and robbery charges against them dropped are accused of being in South Africa illegally and have been charged with immigration offenses.