News cameras were rolling as South African police opened fire on a crowd of hundreds of striking workers at one of the world's largest platinum mines, leaving dozens injured and several dead. Local media report the death toll could be as high as 18.
The workers were armed with machetes and chanting war songs when police moved to disperse the crowd at the Lonmin PLC mine about 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg. The South African Press Association reports police initially used tear gas and a water cannon to try to break up the protest when some workers fired guns in retaliation.
A 3-minute shootout reportedly ensued as hundreds of people ran for safety, but the head of one of the unions representing the striking miners told ABC News they were only carrying their traditional weapons and denied they had any guns.
"The responsibility for the massacre today should rest squarely on the hands of Lonmin management," said Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
This is not the first deadly day of unrest at the Lonmin mine where about 3,000 workers walked off the job last Friday to demand higher wages. The following day, management said those who tried to go to work were attacked by the strikers. On Sunday, two security guards were killed when the crowd torched their cars, and on Monday mobs at the strike killed two workers and two police officers trying to intervene.
Earlier today, police said negotiations to get the armed strikers to leave so operations at the mine could resume broke down.
Some of the striking miners said they were being paid about 4,000 rand a month (about $500) and wanted a raise to 12,500 rand. Platinum mine owners say business is struggling because of a decline in the price of the precious metal and rising labor costs.
Twelve percent of the world's platinum comes from the Lonmin mine where operations are stalled because of the violent strike. In January, violence between competing unions forced another large mine run by Impala Platinum to close temporarily, which pushed the price of the precious metal up 15 percent.