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S. Africa official says sorry for shot miners

A mine worker Thabo Leribe sits as they wait for a report back from their union at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012.
AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

(AP) MARIKANA, South Africa - South Africa's defense minister apologized Tuesday to angry miners who held up plastic packets of bullet casings, the first government official to beg forgiveness for the police shootings that killed 34 striking miners, wounded another 78 and shocked the nation. It was the most deadly display of state violence since apartheid ended in 1994.

Defense Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula's apology came at the site of the killings where hundreds of mourners walked barefoot earlier in a ceremony to bless the site.

The minister spoke after one furious miner demanded to know why President Jacob Zuma has not come to address them, and threatened not to vote for the governing African National Congress.

"If Jacob Zuma doesn't want to come here, how does he expect to gain our votes?" One man shouted as a posse of government ministers gathered before hundreds of striking miners.

Another piped up: "Don't you know if the miners here don't vote for you, the ANC is going down?"

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Defense Minister Mapisa-Nqakula responded: "We agree, as you see us standing in front of you here, that blood was shed at this place. We agree that it was not something to our liking and, as a representative of the government, I apologize."

When miners started shaking plastic bags of bullet casings at her, evidence of the many bullets that police fired in volleys last Thursday, she said: "I am begging, I beg and I apologize, may you find forgiveness in your hearts."

Lonmin Platinum Mine Strike
Policemen in teargas and dust open fire on striking miners at the Lonmin Platinum Mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012.

She added: "The blood that is boiling is not helping anyone here at all."

Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega was criticized this week for absolving her officers of guilt saying: "It was the right thing to do" to fire in alleged self-defense. No police officer was hurt in the shooting though two were savagely hacked to death by strikers last week.

The government did intervene in favor of the strikers, persuading mine managers that no striking miners should be fired in the week that South Africa officially mourns the killings, the presidency said Tuesday.

Managers of Lonmin PLC platinum mine had ordered strikers to report for duty by 7 a.m. Tuesday or get fired, even as some family members still were searching for missing loved ones, not knowing whether they were dead or alive among some 250 arrested protesters or in one of the hospitals.

Zuma rushed home from a regional summit in neighboring Mozambique on Friday to attend to the crisis. He flew directly to the area of Marikana mine and visited wounded miners in the hospital. But he did not come to address the grieving and furious strikers. Tuesday's visit by an inter-ministerial committee was the first official visit to the scene of the shootings.

The first politician to venture here was firebrand Julius Malema, who came Saturday and was welcomed as a hero and used the opportunity to promote his vendetta to get Zuma ousted.

Lonmin Platinum Mine Strike
Police surround the bodies of striking miners after opening fire on a crowd at the Lonmin Platinum Mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012.

Malema, who was expelled from Zuma's ANC in April but remains an influential figure, on Tuesday told reporters that "President Zuma doesn't care about these people (the striking miners)."

He spoke outside a police station near the mine where he went with strike leaders to file a criminal case of murder against the police for the shootings.

"We strongly believe that it is within the laws and constitution to hold all people who kill other people accountable within the confines of the law," Malema's spokesman Floyd Shivambu told reporters.

Malema said he does not trust a commission of inquiry being arranged by Zuma because it would be "manipulated by the politicians."

Earlier Tuesday at the dusty site of the killings, hundreds of mourners walked barefoot as church leaders blessed the ground, with a Methodist bishop drawing a large cross in the dirt.

"Church members have come to express solidarity in the wake of what really has been a shocking event," Bishop Gavin Taylor said. "It's almost indescribable that people could have been killed in this way."

As others sang hymns one woman, Alakhe Nombeu, sobbed. She said her brother was one of the strikers killed by the police and that she finally found the name of her missing husband among those arrested only three days after the shootings.

Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane announced that officials by late Tuesday had identified 33 of the 34 bodies of shot miners, including one man from Lesotho, a mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa. Chabane's spokesman Harold Maloka said it had taken days to check the mine's data base, the government data base and ensure that families were able to identify the men.