JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Two Lonmin workers were killed on Monday in South Africa as they reported for work at their strike-hit platinum mine, a mineworkers union said, threatening the firm's plans to end the walkout this week.
Lonmin chief executive Ben Magara confirmed one employee was killed in what he called a "a very sad incident", but provided no other details on a conference call with reporters.
London-listed Lonmin, the smallest of the three platinum firms hit by the costliest strike in South African mining history, saw its underlying earnings before interest and tax shrink by almost two thirds in the six months to the end of March.
It was hoping miners would start returning this week after it made its wage offer directly to employees, sidestepping the majority Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) in a bid to end a four-month strike.
"Two mine workers were killed this morning. NUM members who went to work are being intimidated and assaulted," said Livhuwani Mammburu, spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) whose members have been abandoning the strike.
"If Lonmin wants our members to return to work they have to guarantee their safety. We have no faith in police - they are not doing anything to protect workers."
The Solidarity union, which mainly represents skilled workers, also said its members were being intimidated.
Lonmin said police were aware of the violence in Marikana, 120 km (70 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, but a police spokeswoman for the region said they were yet to get details.
"It is a very sad incident and a very sad time," Magara said during a call with reporters. "My appeal is: our employees have the right to choose (whether to go back to work) in our democratic country and they should be able to exercise that peacefully."
Lonmin said it expected to assess the success of the return to work by the end of this month, with production provisionally scheduled to start in June, if successful.
Workers attendance levels had gradually increased to 12 percent on Friday, up from between 9 percent and 11.5 percent since the strike began, said Lerato Molebatsi, Lonmin head of public affairs.
"Intimidation is a big issue and highlights that Lonmin is going to be very reliant not only on its own security but also on the government to provide additional security to make the workers feel safe enough to return," London-based Investec analyst Marc Elliott said.
"Now with the elections out of the way the government can be more proactive."
Lonmin said restructuring of its business and job cuts were inevitable as the strike had exacerbated already difficult market conditions.
Lonmin's larger rivals, Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum, have also presented wage offers directly to employees after talks with the AMCU collapsed.
Implats spokesman Johan Theron said the company was expected to conclude an SMS vote on its offer on Tuesday. The voting started last week.
AMCU's leaders maintain that most of their roughly 70,000 striking members are not happy with the latest offer.
The companies are offering increases of up to 10 percent that they say would raise the overall minimum pay package to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month by July 2017, including cash allowances such as for housing.
AMCU had initially demanded an immediate increase to 12,500 rand in the basic wage, excluding allowances, but softened that in March to staggered increases that would amount to 12,500 rand within three or four years - still a third more than what the companies are offering in basic salaries.
The strike is the longest and costliest to hit South Africa's mines, highlighting the discontent among black miners who feel they are still not reaping the benefits of the country's mineral wealth two decades after apartheid ended.
It has hit 40 percent of global platinum output and dented already sluggish growth in Africa's most advanced economy.
Additional reporting by Zandi Shabalala in Johannesburg and Silvia Antonioli in London; Writing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo; Editing by Ed Cropley and Tom Heneghan