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One of the bloodiest police shootings since the days of apartheid has killed 34 miners and injured 78 at a South African platinum mine, leaving the nation in crisis and searching its soul over the rising levels of violent protest and police brutality.
South African President Jacob Zuma cut short a foreign tour, abandoning a regional summit in Mozambique to rush to the mine site. Politicians condemned the shooting, while the South African media called it a massacre and analysts accused the police of an excessive response to the striking mineworkers.
Mr. Zuma later announced that he will set up a commission of inquiry into the shootings at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg. He said the entire country was “saddened and dismayed” by the “shocking” deaths. “The inquiry will enable us to get to the real cause of the incident,” he said.
The police opened fire with automatic rifles and pistols on Thursday when confronted by an advancing mob of mineworkers. Early reports suggested that as many as 18 people were killed, but on Friday the police announced that 34 were killed, 78 injured and 259 were arrested.
Senior police officials called a press conference on Friday to defend their handling of the clash, saying that some of the strikers were carrying guns. But only one police officer was injured and he was quickly released from hospital, showing the disproportionate scale of the police response.
Video of the shooting showed the police firing merciless volleys into the crowd of advancing workers, even after bodies began to tumble, until a senior officer repeatedly shouted “cease fire, cease fire.”
Analysis of the video by a South African television channel suggested that the mineworkers may have been fleeing from a tear-gas volley from a different direction, rather than attacking the police, when they were gunned down by the officers.
Some analysts said the police appeared to be panicking because they were outnumbered and under-equipped – an indication of poor preparation for a predictable confrontation that followed days of earlier violence in which 10 people died, including two police officers.
An independent police investigation board has dispatched a team of researchers who have been working around the clock on the site, gathering ballistic and forensic evidence to determine whether the police conduct was justified.
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