by Ephrem Rugiririza*
Rescuers searched for dozens of miners trapped by floods in a pit in northern Tanzania yesterday, as families gathered with little hope of seeing their relatives alive.
Only six bodies have been recovered from the tanzanite concession in Mirerani, near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, since the accident occurred early Saturday.
Officials gave diverging counts of the number of miners believed to be trapped inside the pit, where thousands of small-scale miners dig to find the precious purple-blue mineral named after this east African country.
"In total, around 100 people were affected by the flooding, and 35 managed to get out alive," Manyara regional commissioner Henry Shekifu said yesterday.
"We are still looking for the bodies of 59 people," he added.
The region's top government official was jeered by some of the miners he was addressing near the entrance to the pit, where tunnels snake down sometimes 250 metres below the surface.
"You come with Land Cruisers instead of machines to help us pull out colleagues," said one of the miners.
Rescuers and miners attempted to descend into the pit to retrieve bodies had very little equipment at their disposal.
Another official had said Saturday that more than 80 miners might be missing.
Although the weather conditions improved overnight, access to Mirerani remained very difficult, an correspondent at the scene said.
The South African mining outfit Tanzanite One exploiting the neighbouring pit offered some of its equipment to pump out water and scoop out mud blocking access to the tunnels.
But the miners and families gathering near the pit entrance had all but lost hope of finding any survivors.
"My husband is still down there. There are also two brothers in law of mine. All I want to find their bodies," said Rosa Manka, a young woman, sobbing as two aunts supported her.
Tanzanite, a purple-blue shimmering stone, has been found only in northern Tanzania and in 2005 a leading gemstone miner said it unearthed the world's largest tanzanite stone weighing about three kilograms.
The lure of striking riches has drawn thousands of miners to Mirerani, which resembles a gold-rush town dotted with brothels, bars and hardware stores supplying the miners.
Small-scale miners such as those affected by Saturday's disaster only get food rations from their employers and are paid only if they hit Tanzanite. Some of them work months if not years without pay.
Tanzanite is believed to be limited to east Africa's Rift Valley region and the pits where the accident happened are located in the heart of Maasai land, a short distance from Mount Kilimanjaro.
The gemstone was discovered by Maasai tribesmen in 1967.
The east African nation's mining sector has expanded rapidly over the past decade after it adopted liberal economic policies in the mid-1980s.
Tanzania is the continent's third-largest gold producer after South Africa and Ghana and is also rich in diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires.
The mining sector contributes less than three percent of the nation's GDP but the rate should reach 10 percent by 2025 according to a development plan outlined by the government.
Serbia's foreign minister on Saturday urged his EU counterparts to swiftly sign a rapprochement accord to help avert a nationalist victory in upcoming national elections.
Vuk Jeremic told the EU foreign ministers in Slovenia that though he sees Serbia's future within the EU, Belgrade still remains firmly opposed to independence for Kosovo.
The friendly approach to the EU but an implacable stance on Kosovo highlighted the tough task the pro-European lobby has in appealing to the electorate ahead of the May elections.
The EU and Serbia have initialled a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), the first step to membership, but Belgium and the Netherlands have blocked its signing.
"Despite all differences (with the EU) we remain committed to the path of European integration," Jeremic said on the sidelines of a two-day meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brdo, near the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.
"In a few years Serbia is going to become a member of the EU … maybe four, five or six years," he added, while insisting that Serbia would continue its "diplomatic fight" in order to "preserve our territorial integrity."
He also underlined that Serbia would maintain its policy of recalling ambassadors from nations which recognise Kosovo.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, told a press conference after the talks that Jeremic, when asked how the Europeans could help Serbia, replied that the pro-European forces in Serbia would be glad to see a quick signing of the SAA.
For several months most EU nations have been in favour of signing an association accord with Serbia.
However, the Dutch and Belgian foreign ministers repeated at the talks in Slovenia that Belgrade should first help bring former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, one of the most wanted men in Europe, to the UN war crimes tribunal.
European diplomats said the Serbian minister had little room for political manoeuvre ahead of the general election on May 11.
Belgrade considers mainly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo to be one of its cultural heartlands.
Eighteen of the 27 EU nations have already recognised Kosovo's independence, while European leaders stress that all of the western Balkans — including Serbia and Kosovo — have an eventual home in the bloc.
Jeremic narrowly avoided meeting Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci — also invited for talks on the Balkans — thereby dashing EU presidency hopes for a landmark get-together.
It was nonetheless an ice-breaker between Serbia and the European nations, being the first such high-level meeting since Kosovo declared independence on February 27.
The EU foreign ministers, on the second and final day of talks in Brdo, had invited western Balkans foreign ministers and Thaci — the prime mover in Kosovo's independence bid — for talks on the region.
Serbian President Boris Tadic dissolved parliament last month and called early elections for May 11, after the ruling coalition collapsed in a rift over ties with the EU and Kosovo's independence.
The European Union fears a victory of the nationalist forces led by outgoing hardline Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica could reverse the progress towards EU integration made by Serbia over the last years and hamper stability in the region.