South African riot police opened fire on striking miners armed with machetes and sticks at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine yesterday, killing several men in the deadliest episode of a week of union violence.
Heavily armed officers backed by armoured cars were laying out barricades when they were outflanked by some of the estimated 3,000 miners massed near the mine, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg.
Police opened fire with automatic weapons on a group of men who burst out from behind a vehicle. Television footage showed seven bodies lying on the ground after the volley.
South Africa's Sapa news agency said one of its reporters had counted 18 bodies.
It was not clear whether the police were fired on. Photographs showed spears and clubs lying near the bodies.
Police said several days of talks with leaders of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which was representing most of the strikers, had broken down, leaving no option but to disperse them by force.
"Today is unfortunately D-day," police spokesman Dennis Adriao said.
Before yesterday's clashes, 10 people, including two policemen, had died in nearly a week of fighting between rival worker factions at the mine, the latest platinum plant to be hit by an eight-month union turf war in the world's main producer of the precious metal.
On Wednesday, up to 3,000 police officers, including members of an elite, camouflage-wearing riot control unit backed by helicopters and horses, confronted the striking rock-drill operators, but there were no clashes.
Before the police advance, Joseph Mathunjwa, the president of AMCU - which has been on a big recruitment push in South Africa's platinum mines - said there would be bloodshed if police moved in.
"We're going nowhere," he shouted to cheers from the crowd. "If need be, we're prepared to die here."
In a statement earlier yesterday, Lonmin had said striking workers would be fired if they did not appear for their shifts today.
"The striking [workers] remain armed and away from work," the statement read. "This is illegal."
The unrest has forced Marikana's London-headquartered owner to halt production at all its South African operations, which account for 12 per cent of global platinum output.
Platinum prices leapt as much as US$30 an ounce - more than 2 per cent - to a six-day high as the extent of the violence became apparent.
Lonmin said it was unlikely to meet its full-year production target for platinum due to the six-day disruption.
Its London-listed shares were down more than 6 per cent yesterday, bringing total losses since the violence began to more than 13 per cent.
The Marikana strikers have not made their demands explicit, although much of the bad blood stems from a turf war between AMCU and the National Union of Mineworkers, the dominant union for the last two decades.
At least three people were killed in a similar round of fighting in January that led to a six-week closure of the world's largest platinum mine, run by Impala. That helped push the platinum price up 15 per cent.
South Africa is home to 80 per cent of the world's known platinum reserves, but rising power and labour costs and a sharp drop in the price of the precious metal this year have left many mines struggling to keep their heads above water.
Additional reporting by Associated Press