Rescuers save 1,650 trapped S.African gold miners

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ELANDSRAND MINE, South Africa, Oct 4 (Reuters) Around 1,500 miners remained trapped more than a mile underground in a South African gold mine today after an all-night rescue mission.

Mining officials said 3,200 workers were stranded when the electricity cable of the Elandsrand mine's main lift was severed in an accident.

Up to 200 women were among those stuck in a cramped space where temperatures could reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

The first miners saved by a secondary lift emerged in the middle of the night after being trapped 2.2 km (1.4 miles) underground for more than 15 hours.

''I feel happy to be on the surface. It was hot, dusty and I am quite hungry now,'' said 27-year-old Zandile Sindiwe.

Mine owner Harmony Gold said the rescue operation was going smoothly and those underground were being pumped clean air and water. By 1300 hrs IST, 1,650 mineworkers had been brought to the surface.

''It's a very serious incident, but it's under control,'' Harmony chief executive officer Graham Briggs told Reuters.

The mine's general manager, Stan Bierschenk, said the morale of workers still stuck below ground was ''fairly brittle''.

Both the company and the mining union said better safety standards were needed at the pit near Carletonville, southwest of Johannesburg.

Company chairman Patrice Motsepe described the accident as a ''wake up call to all of us''. He said he expected all the miners, who were being pulled up in small lift slowly to avoid risks, to emerge by about 1100 GMT.

DEEPEST IN WORLD Production at the mine has been halted and it will remain shut until an investigation had been carried out and the damage repaired, Briggs said. Harmony is the world's fifth biggest gold producer.

The miners were caught after an air pipe broke off and hurtled down the shaft, damaging steelwork and severing an electrical cable carrying power to the main lift, Briggs said.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said it suspected negligence and Harmony's practice of mining 24 hours per day caused the accident.

''We suspect negligence. Because of continuous operations there is no time to make adequate checks,'' NUM President Senzeni Zokwana told reporters.

Zokwana said emergency exits were needed to give workers an alternative escape route. ''The manner of mining is a problem, we want to push the companies to build secondary exits, linked to the neighbouring mine,'' he said.

Motsepe agreed additional measures were needed to protect workers underground. ''Our safety records both as a company and as a country leave much to be desired,'' he told reporters.

South African gold mines are the deepest in the world and unions have often criticised companies for not doing enough to ensure workers' safety.

Gold mine operations have come under scrutiny over the past few months after a series of accidents. Gold producers are mining ever deeper to offset lower production and reap the benefits of a sharply higher bullion price.

Gold output in South Africa, the world's biggest gold producer, has tumbled by more than 50 percent over the past decade after high-grade mines run out of ore, and firms grapple with more difficult and high-cost underground operations.

The government briefly closed an AngloGold Ashanti mine in July after two miners were killed in a rock fall.

Harmony bought the Elandsrand mine and nearby Deelkraal operations from rival AngloGold Ashanti in 2001. At the time production was declining and Harmony saw potential in digging a new mine underneath the old one.

Harmony, which employs around 44,000 people and produced 2.4 million ounces of gold in 2006, expects to complete the new Elandsrand mine by 2011 and to mine it for a further 18 years.

REUTERS JK PM1414

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