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JOHANNESBURG — South African police opened fire Thursday on a crowd of striking miners that charged a line of officers trying to disperse them, killing some and wounding others in one of the worst shootings by authorities since the end of the apartheid era.
Police declined to offer casualty figures after the shooting at the Lonmin PLC mine near Marikana, a dusty town about 70 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg. However, the main South African news agency, SAPA, has reported that 18 people have been killed. Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi acknowledged late Thursday some of the miners there had died as more police and soldiers surrounded the hostels and shacks near Lonmin’s shuttered platinum mine.
The shooting happened Thursday afternoon after police failed to get the striking miners to hand over machetes, clubs and other weapons. Some miners did leave, though others carrying weapons began war chants and soon started marching toward the township near the mine, said Molaole Montsho, a journalist with the South African Press Association who was at the scene.
The police opened up with a water cannon first, then used stun grenades and tear gas to try and break up the crowd, Mr. Montsho said.
Suddenly, a group of miners rushed through the underbrush and tear gas at a line of police officers. Officers immediately opened fire, with miners falling to the ground. Dozens of shots were fired by police armed with automatic rifles and pistols.
Images broadcast by private television broadcaster e.tv showed the gunfire ending with police officers shouting “cease fire!” By that time, bodies were lying in the dust, some pouring blood. Another image showed some miners, their eyes wide, looking in the distance at heavily armed police officers in riot gear.
It was an astonishing development in a country that has been a model of stability since racist white rule ended with South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994. The shooting recalled images of white police firing at anti-apartheid protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, but in this case it was mostly black police firing at black mine workers.
President Jacob Zuma said he was “shocked and dismayed at this senseless violence.”
“We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence,” he said in a statement.
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