JOHANNESBURG, June 9 (Reuters) - Miners have downed tools and 16 workers have been physically assaulted in a wildcat strike at Sibanye Gold's Cooke operation west of Johannesburg, the company said on Friday.
Sibanye spokesman James Wellsted said about 3,900 workers were striking against the company's drive to root out illegal mining from its operations, which has included the arrest of employees accused of collusion with criminal elements and a policy of not allowing any food to be taken underground.
Illegal gold mining has plagued South Africa for decades, with bullion pilfered from both disused and operating mines, and Sibanye has vowed it will clear all illegal miners from its shafts by January 2018.
The Cooke mines have been at the centre of illicit activities at Sibanye's operations and Wellsted said that before this week 101 illegal miners had been arrested there and 58 employees accused of collusion had also been arrested.
"Since the strike began Tuesday, 71 illegal miners have come to the surface and been arrested because they were no longer being provided with food," Wellsted said.
Illegal miners can spend weeks underground, which requires large amounts of food and water - which is why Sibanye has banned its employees from taking any food underground.
Sibanye said "the strike has been associated with a significant amount of threats and intimidation" and that dismissal procedures had been started against striking employees.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said in a statement the 16 assaulted miners were its members and that four of them were in a critical condition in hospital but Sibanye could not confirm that.
NUM, which is the majority union at Cooke, blamed the assaults on its arch-rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). A spokesman for AMCU said he could not immediately comment.
A turf war for members between the two unions has triggered periodic wildcat strikes and triggered violence that has killed scores of miners over the past five years. (Additional reporting by Zandi Shabalala in London, editing by David Evans)