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'Murder on a massive scale': Angry fallout from S. Africa mine shootings

T J Lemon / EPA

Mine workers continuing their strike at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, South Africa, on Monday.

The withdrawal of controversial murder charges against 270 South African miners for the killings of 34 striking co-workers by police followed intense public pressure -- including a report that the victims were shot execution-style or crushed by police vehicles.

Public anger had been mounting at the charges, made under an apartheid-era law under which the miners were deemed to have had a "common purpose" in the murder of their co-workers by creating violent disorder.

The police killing of the strikers last month at the Marikana mine, run by platinum producer Lonmin, was the worst such security incident since the end of white rule in 1994, and recalled scenes of state brutality from that era.

Since then, South Africa has become the richest country on the continent, but the wealth has remained in the hands of minority whites joined by a small black elite.

At Marikana, the strike and violence stem from a turf struggle for members between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers and the small but militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has flared across the platinum belt.

Reporter finds 'murder on a massive scale'
A widely-read article last week by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Greg Marinovich in the Daily Maverick newspaper, based on a two-week investigation, challenged the official account.

Mine 'bloodbath' shocks post-apartheid South Africa

Marinovich, citing eyewitness testimony and forensic research, reported that some of the miners were shot execution-style or crushed by police vehicles.

Memorial services will be held for the 34 South African platinum miners gunned down by police last week. The country's embattled President Jacob Zuma visited the mine, promising a full judicial enquiry while reassuring international investors that South Africa was open for business. But the price of platinum on world markets surged - as reports suggested strikes were spreading to other mines. Inigo Gilmore, Channel 4 Europe reports.

"It is becoming clear to this reporter that heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood. A minority were killed in the filmed event where police claim they acted in self-defense. The rest was murder on a massive scale," he wrote.

PhotoBlog: Miners gather to pray for South African shooting victim at site of violence

Most of the 270 miners were arrested Aug. 16 after police opened fire on striking miners, killing 34 and wounding 78. The shootings shocked the nation.

Police said they acted in self-defense after the miners shot at them. Most miners were armed with homemade clubs and machetes but police said they recovered several handguns from the scene.

Ten people had been killed in a week of violence over union rivalries that preceded the shootings. Some of those killed were officials of the National Union of Mineworkers, while two police officers were hacked to death and two mine security guards were burned alive in their vehicle.

S. Africa uses apartheid-era law to accuse 270 miners of murder

"In a country that does not sanction judicial killings, even pedophiles and rapists get hauled before a judge. These miners were not even given that," Marinovich told NBC News.

South Africa officially abolished capital punishment in 1995.

"But it’s not for me to decide. It's for the judge to decide. I’m just a reporter," he said by telephone in South Africa.

Marininovich conceded that the miners in question were not entirely innocent -- some of them may have even committed murder --but "there should have been a judge. That’s what the law is for. That’s what the law is meant to decide."

Marinovich’s account backed research conducted by Peter Alexander of the University of Johannesburg.

South Africa to withdraw murder charges against miners

Charges withdrawn
Even South Africa’s justice minister had challenged the prosecutor's decision to charge the arrested miners.

Nomqcobo Jiba, the acting director of public prosecutions, did not say why she had reversed her decision to shift the blame from the police to the miners.

"The murder charge against the current 270 suspects ... will be formally withdrawn," she told a news conference on Sunday.

She said the miners would be released from jail with a warning, providing police could verify their home addresses.

After a violet pay dispute left 34 dead and 78 injured in South Africa, Police say they were "forced to use maximum force to defend themselves." ITN's Neil Connery reports.

She said other charges, ranging from public violence and illegal gathering to illegal possession of firearms, would remain, but the cases were being postponed pending final investigations and the findings of a judicial commission of inquiry, which is to report to President Jacob Zuma's government by January.

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Irvin Jim, secretary general of the National Union of Metal Workers, said Sunday that the police shootings confirm that South Africa has not transformed "the apartheid state and its violent machinery."

Zuma comes under criticism
The killings, and the plight of miners who were demanding higher wages, has highlighted the failures of Zuma's government just as he prepares to run for re-election in December as president of the governing African National Congress, a position that would virtually guarantee him another term as president.

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Zuma's government is criticized for failing to address the concerns of South Africans suffering high unemployment, housing shortages and growing inequality between rich and poor.

Officials in South Africa confirmed today that 34 people were killed and 78 injured when police opened fire on striking uranium miners and supporters they allege charged at them. TODAY's Natalie Morales reports.

Lonmin's mines have been idle for three weeks, and labor strife has spread from the platinum sector to gold, where a quarter of the 46,000-strong workforce at Gold Fields have staged a wildcat strike, further unsettling investors.

The stakes are high. South Africa sits on about 80 percent of the world's known reserves of the precious metal, used to make catalytic converters for automobiles.

NBC News' staff, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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