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Oct 23, 2012 | South Africa

S. Africa police admit possible mistakes in Marikana deaths

By Jean Liou
A group of men in August 2012 carry the coffin of one of the striking miners killed by police.  By Rodger Bosch (AFP/File)
A group of men in August 2012 carry the coffin of one of the striking miners killed by police. By Rodger Bosch (AFP/File)

RUSTENBURG, South Africa (AFP) - South African police admitted Monday it may have used disproportionate force when 34 people were shot dead during a pay strike at a platinum mine in August but the victims' lawyers charged 14 miners were shot in the back.

Giving evidence before an inquiry into the killings, police lawyer Ishmael Semenya, also expressed their "deep regret" over the shooting deaths at what has been dubbed the "Marikana massacre".

"The situation got out of control," said police lawyer Ishmael Semenya, as he catalogued the fateful actions taken to disperse around 3,000 strikers at platinum giant Lonmin's Marikana mine on August 16.

He said that in self defence, officers from a tactical response team had shot on the advancing miners without any order to do so and then pursued the remaining 18 to other areas of the complex, using deadly force.

"The evidence may reveal that the response of the police may have been disproportionate," said Semenya in reference to eight f those killed.

Victims lawyer Dumisa Ntsebeza however said at least 14 of the miners were shot in the back, suggesting they were gunned down fleeing from the police.

He told the hearing "fatal projectile wounds were sustained from the back."

In the hearing room, some family members of the deceased wept quietly, dabbing their eyes with tissues.

With at least 16 of the killings broadcast live on television, the events shocked South African and the world, reminding many of the worst brutality of the apartheid era.

The outrage prompted President Jacob Zuma to set up the probe.

Despite the police's failings, Semenya insisted all police actions on that day were taken in self-defence -- pointing to two guns later found on the deceased at the first site and three other firearms that were later discovered.

"The use of lethal force was the last possible resort," he said, "there was no murderous intent from the part of the police service."

With the head of the South African Police Service, Riah Phiyega, also looking on, Semenya detailed how the police aimed to quell thousands of angry miners, many brandishing traditional weapons, machetes and sticks as they demanded higher pay.

Semenya admitted police were insufficiently in crowd control and that at various stages, had tried to contact mine management and labour representatives to engage in peaceful negotiations.

Prominent human rights lawyer George Bizos, who represented Nelson Mandela during his trial by the apartheid regime and now, some of the police shooting victims, questioned why police escaped unscathed from the clashes.

"Is it a matter of good luck or divine intervention that we have 34 protesters killed and not a single injury to a policeman?" asked Bizos.

The inquiry into the violence -- led by appeals court judge Ian Farlam -- began deliberations on October 1, but was postponed because family members from rural parts of the country had needed more time to travel to Rustenburg, near where the killings happened.

During the strike, a total of 46 people were killed near the small mining town northwest of Johannesburg.

Autopsy reports of the 34 people killed by police were expected to show if all were part of a crowd that gathered on a hill near the mine armed with traditional weapons which authorities judged threatening, or if officers chased and killed some in cold blood between the boulders, as some witnesses have claimed.

Ten others were killed by striking workers in clashes before the police shooting, and two others died later in the strike.

Some 28,000 workers at the mine returned to work on September 18, after London-based Lonmin agreed to pay hikes of up to 22 percent for strikers.

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