SOUTH African police have killed close to 40 striking workers at a platinum mine owned by London-listed Lonmin.The dead were in an armed group who ran at a line of officers on Thursday afternoon.
Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi told The Associated Press on Friday that more than 30 people were killed. He said an investigation into the shooting at the Marikana mine, about 70 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, was under way.
South Africa's National Union of Mineworkers said on Friday 36 people died. Many people were injured.
The shooting happened after police failed to get the striking miners disperse and hand over machetes, clubs and other weapons.
Some miners did leave. Others carrying weapons began war chants and soon started marching toward the township near the mine, said South African Press Association journalist Molaole Montsho, who was at the scene.
The police used a water cannon first, then stun grenades and teargas to try to break up the crowd, Montsho said.
Suddenly, a group of miners rushed through the underbrush at a line of police officers. Officers immediately opened fire with automatic rifles and pistols. Bleeding miners fell to the ground.
Images broadcast by private television station e.tv carried the sound of a barrage of automatic gunfire that ended 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 at heavily armed police in riot gear.
It was an astonishing development in a country that has been a model of stability.
It remains unclear what sparked the miners' fatal charge at police. Police said they were also shot at, apparently with a weapon stolen from a policeman who was killed by strikers earlier in the week.
"We had a situation where people who were armed to the teeth." They had earlier attacked and killed others, "even police officers", Minsi said in a statement.
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," Zuma said in a statement.
Barnard Mokwena, an executive vice president at Lonmin, would say only: "It's a police operation."
In a statement on Thursday, Lonmin had said striking workers would be fired if they did not appear at their shifts Friday.
"The striking (workers) remain armed and away from work," the statement read. "This is illegal."
While the initial walkout and protest focused on wages, the ensuing violence, in which 10 people, including two policemen, were killed, has been fuelled by rivalry between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
Lonmin is the world's third largest platinum producer and its mine at Marikana produces 96 per cent of all its platinum.
The violence has shaken the precious metals market, as platinum futures ended up $US39, or 2.8 per cent, at $US1,435.20 an ounce in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Lonmin stock plunged 6.76 per cent on Thursday on the London Stock Exchange. The company's stock value has dropped more than 12 per cent since the start of the unrest.