* SAfrica’s illegal mining valued at 5.6 billion rand * Illegal mining poses serious threat to industry
CAPE TOWN, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Top mineral producer South Africa vows to clamp down on illegal mining operations which have increased on the back of higher metals prices and as Africa’s biggest economy hit its first recession in 17 years.
Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu said late on Wednesday that illegal mining in the world’s top platinum producer and No. 3 producer of gold, was valued at 5.6 billion rand ($766.6 million).
She said the government would tighten up legislation to clamp down on illegal operations, as top police detectives investigate the organised crime.
"Illegal mining is a huge, multi-billion rand criminal industry featuring national and international syndicates," Shabangu told parliament.
"These gold-smuggling syndicates are highly organised, dangerous and well-resourced," she said.
Shabangu said thousands of diggers, mainly from Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana, risked their lives to share in the loot.
The hidden world of illegal miners was recently thrust into the public spotlight when 91 people working in an abandoned mineshaft in Welkom died after a fire broke out. [ID:nL41016890]
Shabangu said illegal miners were no different from "ruthless criminals" and were openly carrying AK-47 assault rifles in the Barberton mining district in Mpumalanga province, in the north of the country.
She said heavily-armed gangs were setting booby traps using explosives to protect their illegal mining operations from police and security personnel.
"Legal mineworkers have been also abducted in Barberton and used as human shields in confrontations with the police," she said. (Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Keiron Henderson)