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South Africa starts investigating mine violence

MARIKANA, South Africa -- A judicial panel on Monday investigated the rocky site where South African police killed 34 striking miners in August.

Crime experts showed the commission of inquiry the scene of the police shootings that were South Africa's worst state violence since apartheid ended in 1994. President Jacob Zuma ordered the judicial investigation to determine the causes of the police killings which shook the nation.

One of the experts first pointed out where police laid barbed wire fencing that blocked thousands of people gathered on large brown boulders from running back to their informal settlement on Aug. 16. Sixteen people died near the site. Another 18 were killed across the field and on the other side of the large group of boulders. The second expert pointed to bullet marks, where shotgun casings were found, bodies laid and an emergency medical care area was set up.

The judicial panel and a large crowd of representatives for those involved in the inquiry followed the experts, after a group of protesters with the Marikana support campaign greeted them with songs and signs that read: "Don't let the police get away with murder."

Among those participating in inquiry is George Bizos, former lawyer for Nelson Mandela and who now represents the Legal Resources Center and the Bench Marks Foundation in the inquiry.

In addition to those killed, some 78 were injured and more than 250 arrested in the incident.

During the tour, a crime expert pointed out where bodies and shotgun cartridges were found.

Monday was the first day of the 4-month-long investigation into the killings at the Marikana mines. At least 10 more people were killed in other violence, including two policemen. The commission puts the death toll in Marikana at 44, and an Associated Press count puts it at 46.

"This is very important to us," said a Marikana miner watching the group navigating the scene of the police shootings. "I hope those involved are found out and they must be brought to jail."

"We are still afraid," he said of the police. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The inquiry launched Monday focuses on violence from Aug. 10-16 at a Lonmin PLC platinum mine 94 kilometers (58 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

The Marikana commission of inquiry, chaired by retired Judge Ian Farlam, will determine the roles played by the police, Lonmin, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. It will also determine whether any of those investigated could have put measures into place to prevent the violence.

"It is very important the truth of what happened should become clear as soon as possible," Farlam said Monday morning at the Civic Center in Rustenburg, where hearings began before the visit to the Marikana site. "Our country weeps for this unnecessary and tragic loss of life."

The police shootings of the striking miners were "a turning point which reveals the state is willing to break the working class organizations, and it's of particular concern that the major trade unions didn't take full action in getting permission for the gatherings," said Peter Alexander, the South African research chair on social change at University of Johannesburg.

Alexander said he can't recall so many people being killed for a strike since 1922, when he said mostly white miners went on strike and were killed. He noted the importance of the events before the Aug. 16 shootings, saying that the earlier killings and who was responsible for them may give more insight as to why the shot dead so many strikers that day.

"It's important that the investigation reveals the truth about the killings," said Alexander. "I'm very concerned that ordinary people could have the opportunity to collect information about the inquiry. And I'm very concerned that there is no relationship of trust between the people of the inquiry and the people of Marikana."

He said: "I hope that it will be established that police engaged in unlawful killings, and hopefully if we can establish what happened so that a massacre like this won't happen again."

No family members of those killed participated in the commission's visit to the site of the police shootings. Judge Farlam said that the tour would be recorded for them. At the meeting before the tour, the commission read the names of the dead and asked that any family stand, but none were present.

Families of many of the miners live far away, in the Eastern Cape, Swaziland and Lesotho. Dumisa Ntsebeza, an advocate for the families of those who died, said some didn't know an official inquiry was happening.

He asked that financial support be given to the families to enable them to attend the inquiry and that the process be postponed by 14 days. Farlam said the government would be helping the families travel to the inquiry, but did not grant a postponement.

The commission's tour of the informal settlements around the Lonmin mine and the shafts will continue Tuesday. Public hearings are set to begin Wednesday, with families of the dead given priority seating. The commission asked that news media, which has graphic videos and photos of the police shootings, hand over material for examination.

The first phase of the inquiry will look at the early events. The second phase will examine Lonmin's role in the violence and the company's conduct. The third stage will look at the unions and actions of non-unionized strikers, and the final phase will examine the actions and omissions of the police.

The nearly six-week strike at Marikana was resolved with a wage deal that saw miners gain a 22 percent pay rise and return to work Sept. 20. The strikes, however, have spread to other platinum and gold mines in South Africa and workers are increasingly rejecting their unions and instead choosing their own representatives to speak directly with management.

As those in Marikana tried to find answers to the shootings, labor unrest continued.

The National Union of Mineworkers, or NUM, said one of its officials was in intensive care Monday after a petrol-bomb attack on his house Friday night. The union said the victim is the union's top official at Anglo American Platinum's Khomanani branch and that the attack was carried out by people who are deliberately intimidating union members. The NUM did not elaborate, but a new union has purportedly been intimidating NUM leaders in its bid to gain more members and bargaining power. Workers have been on strike for weeks at Anglo American Platinum, the world's largest platinum producer.

Meanwhile South Africa's truck drivers, represented by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, or SATAWU, said it is organizing peaceful protests and meetings of its members across the country. Truck drivers have been on strike for a week for higher pay.

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Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Johannesburg contributed to this report.