Whinsley Masara, Chronicle Reporter
At least 15 people are feared dead after a tunnel of a disused Old Motapa Mine in Bubi District, Matabeleland North Province, caved-in on Thursday afternoon.
Rescue workers had by yesterday retrieved five bodies and were working on retrieving three more whose legs were sticking out following the collapse of the tunnel.
Illegal panners said they suspected 15 or more panners were trapped underground following the collapse of the tunnel.
On Wednesday, it was reported that about 300 illegal panners had swarmed the mine and yesterday sources said the number could have doubled at the time of the tragedy.
The Bubi District Council chief executive, Mr Patson Mlilo said rescue operations started around 3PM yesterday.
He said all those trapped were feared dead given the time it had taken to reach them.
“The information we have is that 15 or more people could be trapped underground and our fears are that they could be dead by now. Four panners who were rescued told the police that they left 15 others underground.
Five bodies have been retrieved and we are seeing legs of panners trapped sticking out,” he said.
Mr Mlilo said rescuers from Isabella Mine and How Mine were working with the locals to retrieve the trapped bodies.
Another panner died last week after another tunnel collapsed but this has not deterred the panners who continue to enter the tunnels despite the fact that they are now death traps.
The other three panners who were working together with the panner who died last week, were buried up to their necks in sand but were later rescued.
Zanu-PF councillor for Ward 8, Herbert Ngwendu said police were called in to quell the running battles at the disused mine but surprisingly the situation is becoming worse.
The panners said the army should be called in to bring order at the disused mine before more lives are lost as a result of the dangerous mining activities.
Matabeleland North police spokesperson, Inspector Sipiwe Makonese on Thursday confirmed the death of one illegal miner.
She denied allegations by the villagers that police officers called in to maintain order, had joined the illegal mining.
Villagers in the area have appealed to Metallon Gold mining company to re-open the mine to enable organised mining. There was another gold rush which attracted more than 500 illegal panners in Kenilworth last month.
Last year, 13 police officers were convicted under the Police Act for engaging in illegal gold mining in the same area.
Police prosecutors preferred charges ranging from criminal abuse of office, leaving their posts unattended and engaging in activities which violate the Police Act.