South Africa police order striking miners to disperse

MARIKANA, South Africa Thu Aug 16, 2012 9:21am EDT

1 of 7. Striking miners chant slogans outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, August 15, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - South African police ordered thousands of illegally striking miners armed with machetes and sticks to lay down their weapons and leave Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine on Thursday or face an assault by security forces.

"Today is unfortunately D-day," police spokesman Dennis Adriao said. "It is an illegal gathering. We've tried to negotiate and we'll try again but if that fails, we'll obviously have to go to a tactical phase."

Ten people, including two policemen, have died in nearly a week of fighting between rival worker factions at the mine, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, the latest platinum plant to be hit by fallout from an eight-month union turf war.

On Wednesday, up to 3,000 police officers, including members of an elite, camouflage-wearing riot control unit backed by helicopters and horses, confronted several thousand protesting rock-drill operators massed on a rocky outcrop near the mine.

There were no clashes although police described the situation as tense.

Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has been on a big recruitment push in South Africa's platinum mines, threatened bloodshed if police tried to move in.

"We're going nowhere," he shouted through a loudhailer, to cheers from the crowd. "If need be, we're prepared to die here."

The unrest has forced Marikana's London-headquartered owner to halt production at all its South African operations, which account for 12 percent of global platinum output.

The Marikana strikers have not made their demands explicit, although much of the bad blood stems from a turf war between AMCU and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the dominant union for the last two decades.

At least three people were killed in a similar round of fighting in January that led to a six-week closure of the world's largest platinum mine, run by Impala Platinum. That helped push the platinum price up 15 percent.

South Africa is home to 80 percent of the world's known platinum reserves, but rising power and labor costs and a sharp drop in the price of the precious metal this year has left many mines struggling to keep their heads above water.

(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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