The fate of approximately 22 alleged copper thieves trapped underground hangs in the balance as rescue efforts are allegedly being hampered by disgruntled unpaid mineworkers.

“They have threatened us and the contractors and they’ve told us under no circumstances are we allowed to continue [rescue efforts],” the mine’s business rescue representative Mike Elliot told eNCA on Sunday.

A group of 42 men, reportedly Lesotho nationals, gained access to shafts at the Gloria coal mine near Middelburg in Mpumalanga last weekend, allegedly to steal copper cables.

News24 reported that following a gas explosion, 20 members of the group managed to reach safety, leaving the remaining 22 trapped underground.

The mine was owned by the Gupta family and was placed under business rescue in 2018.

Since the closure of the mine in September last year, hundreds of miners have not been paid their salaries, apparently leading to an increase in cable theft.

Workers unpaid since October

Six of the men have since been confirmed dead. Rescue efforts have been halted temporarily because of the threat of various dangers, including damage inflicted by the alleged copper thieves.

Police spokesperson Leonard Hlathi told News24 on Monday that while there was a strong police presence at the mine, rescue operations had been halted for the time being.

Hlathi referred all questions to mine management.

News24 could not reach Elliot for comment.

In an interview on eNCA on Sunday evening, Elliot said disgruntled mineworkers had not been paid since October last year.

“This is because the business rescue process has not been completed,” Elliot said.

“The mines need to be sold in order for the money to come in [to pay the workers],” Elliot said.

Rescue money all spent

Asked whether there was no budget or contingency plan to save the trapped men, Elliot said the required money had already been spent.

“We’ve obtained the necessary kit required to establish power to the mine and we’ve borrowed transformers from other mines.

“We can switch on the fans and freshen the air underground [to] go in and recover the people that are underground.

“But at this point we are awaiting the outcome of a meeting between the MECs and the unions to resolve the issue of payment so that we can continue with the rescue operation.”

Elliot said the men were typically lowered down the 127m-deep shafts with ropes and stay underground on shifts for up to two days as they strip and cut copper.

On Thursday, IOL reported that the alleged copper thieves had fought with security guards at the mine last week in an attempt to gain entry to the underground area.

Rescuers threatened

Elliot told reporters inside the mine’s premises on Thursday that the group had arrived at the mine armed with knobkieries, guns and other weapons, and had tried to force their way into the premises.

“They shot at our guards and our dogs and we called the police,” Elliot reportedly said.

Elliot told EWN: “The mine does not have any power. The copper thieves have cut the main cable and they’ve dropped the main overhead power lines and there’s no air underground. So, as a result of them cutting the copper, the mine filled up with methane gas and there was an explosion which has replaced the oxygen in the mine with carbon monoxide, which is an instantly poisonous gas.”

Elliot estimated that it would take four to six days to “recover the [remaining] bodies”.

According to ANA, Elliot said: “They are cable thieves. They don’t mine. They came here to steal copper cables. The theft of copper cables and transformers at this mine is now estimated at R100m.”

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