At least 36 illegal miners have died in an underground fire at a disused South African gold shaft, officials said on Monday, highlighting a scourge plaguing the world's number two gold producer.
"Thirty-six died in the fire under the ground. It looks that they were illegal miners. It happened in the Free State yesterday (Sunday) afternoon," said Lesiba Seshoka of the influential National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
"Bodies have been rescued on Monday. They are in a bad condition," said Seshoka of the NUM, which has repeatedly called for steps to improve the poor safety standards in mines across the country and the need to wipe out illegal mining.
Although the mine was owned by Harmony Gold, the world's fifth largest gold producer, that part of the mine at Velkom where the accident happened was no longer being used by the firm, he added.
"Illegal mining is a big problem at the moment," said Seshoka.
Harmony Gold said in a statement that 294 illegal miners had been arrested over the two previous weeks at the mine, which is 240 kilometres (150 miles) southwest of Johannesburg.
Those caught would be prosecuted, said the statement posted on the company's website.
"We continue to address the issue of criminal mining on a daily basis, together with the South African police services, the Department of Justice, the National Prosecuting Authority and other affected mining companies," said Harmony chief executive Graham Briggs.
Briggs named some of the actions Harmony has taken to curb illegal minining, including tightened security at shaft heads, daily search operations underground, and improving its measures to control access.
Harmony's main operating manager in the Free State, Tom Smith, said the toll could be higher.
"Up to now there are 36, we have no idea if there are more. We are not going into this area because it is too dangerous," he said.
"Apparently, what we can gather from the people arrested from Wednesday to Sunday .. is that when they were busy operating the fire was accidently started by them.
"We are not operating that mine. It's an abandoned mine," he said.
South Africa's Mining Minister Susan Shabangu expressed shock at the disaster, the SAPA news agency reported.
The company added that it will not deploy its own employees on underground searches in the abandoned mining areas which are extremely dangerous.
Some 200 people are killed in mining accidents every year in South Africa, one of the main producers of gold, diamonds, platinum and coal.
One of the country's worst mining accidents occurred in 1986 when a fire at the Kinross gold mine south of Johannesburg killed more than 170 people.
Harmony produced 1.55 million ounces of gold in its fiscal year 2008. But South Africa has been eclipsed by China as the world's largest producer and after last year's dismal performance - output hit its lowest level since 1922 -- it slipped to third, behind the United States.
In the first quarter of this year, gold output fell by a 4.8 per cent annual rate, as commodity prices have been hammered by the global economic downturn.
Unions estimate that the mining industry, the backbone of South Africa's economy, will shed 50,000 jobs amid predictions of up to 300,000 job cuts across the board this year.
The global fallout has forced the industry into survival mode, according to the Chamber of Mines whose chief executive Mzolizi Diliza has predicted that 2009 will be an "annus horribilis".
Gold remains one of South Africa's biggest exports, accounting for seven per cent of all overseas shipments. Gold mines employ 166,000 people while the industry accounts for 2.5 per cent of the economy, according to the Chamber of Mines.