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December 05, 2006

Pirates of the Underworld: Guerilla Warfare Raging In Gold-Mine Caves

Dungeons & Dragons, for real, and not with dorky loners getting lost in subway tunnels.

More than a mile below the Earth's surface, South African police are waging a battle against a new breed of pirate: wildcat gold miners who live underground for months at a time in unused mine shafts, smuggling out ore worth millions and defending their turf with homemade grenades and booby traps.

In the past six months, in response to pleas from outgunned private mine-security squads, South African police have created a task force to ambush the thieves. The force has arrested 60 of the pirates in six perilous underground raids.

That clattering you just heard was ten-thousand would-be novelists and screenwriters writing "Chapter One" or "FADE IN."

More excerpts below.

"It's very, very dangerous," said Mike Fryer, an assistant police commissioner who helped create the new mine unit for the South African Police Service. Police teams, equipped with explosives experts and Special Task Force officers, have dodged shotgun-wielding miners, defused bombs and managed to wrestle out the invaders so far without any loss of life, Fryer said.


The wildcat miners, who security experts believe sell their processed ore to three international gold-smuggling syndicates, sneak into unused shafts of large commercial gold mines, sometimes with the help of mine employees, and then stay underground working as long as a year, mine experts said.

Working and sleeping in dark, claustrophobic mine shafts where temperatures hover near a stuffy 90 degrees, the men often survive on food smuggled in by legitimate miners, who charge hefty fees for delivery. A loaf of white bread or a can of cola goes for $3.50, Fryer said.

Some of the illegal miners also manage to smuggle girlfriends underground to live with them, or receive regular mail deliveries to keep in touch with families they haven't seen in months, police said.

"Once they're down, they invariably stay down there for a very long time," said Sally de Beer, a spokeswoman for the South African police.

To protect themselves from mine security officers, the wildcat miners build grenades from dynamite, and booby-trap shafts where they work with homemade bombs. Those devices, combined with smoking by illegal miners and the explosions they set off to loosen ore, make their operations a huge threat not just to themselves but to legitimate workers toiling elsewhere in the same mine.

"If there are [explosive mine] gases around, they can't recognize it," Fryer said. "It's easy to have a big explosion and a lot of people lose their lives."


Anton van Achterbergh, a legal expert for the Chamber of Mines in South Africa, said illegal underground miners "have been a problem for many years." The chamber recently commissioned a report by the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria that suggests gold theft--including by underground pirates--costs mining companies in South Africa about $275 million a year.


To prepare for the raids, the new police mine squad spent a week practicing tactics underground, Fryer said, and adjusting to the Dante-esque conditions of sweltering heat, humidity and reduced oxygen. Unable to use firearms underground for fear of sparking mine gases and setting off explosions, the police also have had to come up with alternative weapons, which Fryer won't discuss for fear of tipping off gold pirates.

Please be katanas and/or gladiator-style tridents and nets. Or -- dare I dream it? -- phasers?

Still, members of the new police task force are enjoying the work, not least because "for them it's actually quite an adventure, something completely different," de Beer said.

How do I get embedded?

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posted by Ace at 09:24 AM

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