By Zandi Shabalala
MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa sent more police to the strike-hit platinum belt on Tuesday to protect miners returning to work this week as producers pushed ahead with plans to end the sector's longest and most costly bout of industrial action.
The four-month strike has halted 40 percent of normal global platinum production and dented already sluggish growth in Africa's most advanced economy.
Thulani Ngubane, police spokesman in the platinum mining town of Rustenburg northwest of Johannesburg, said police had set up park-and-ride facilities around the platinum mines to handle the arrivals.
It is unclear how many workers will be coming back but the three big platinum firms say a majority of the 70,000 strikers they have contacted directly want to end the strike.
"We are prepared for any eventuality," Ngubane said, although he acknowledged it would be difficult to provide security for the miners in the shanty towns that ring the main mines. Four miners have been killed in the area over the last three days.
Four police armoured vehicles were stationed outside Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine, where police killed 34 striking miners in 2012.
Shop stewards of the striking Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) told Reuters police had also broken up an illegal march by union members at Marikana.
RETURNING TO WORK
AMCU members have been on strike at Anglo American Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin since January pressing for higher wages but talks have gone nowhere.
Lonmin has said it expects more miners to start returning to work on Wednesday after it made its wage offer directly to employees, sidestepping AMCU.
Implats was still conducting an SMS vote on its offer, which was expected to be concluded on Tuesday, and Amplats also said a majority of its workers wanted to return to work.
"The main reason they are not coming to work is because they are being intimidated," Amplats spokeswoman Mpumi Sithole said.
The firm had provided bus vouchers to its employees in the Eastern Cape province, where many miners have their homes, to return to Rustenburg and most of them had gone back, she added.
The producers say the strike has so far cost them 17 billion rand ($1.64 billion) in lost revenues and employees have lost nearly 8 billion rand of earnings.
AMCU's leaders maintain that most of their striking members are not happy with the latest offer of up to 10 percent.
WAGE DEAL "OUT OF QUESTION"
The companies say that would raise the overall minimum pay package to 12,500 rand ($1,200) a month by July 2017, including cash allowances for things like housing, but AMCU says this is not enough.
"We have remained so far apart. A deal with AMCU at this point in time seems completely out of the question," Amplats chief executive Chris Griffith told private radio station Talk Radio 702.
Griffith added that most Amplats miners wanted to return to work.
AMCU had initially demanded an immediate increase to 12,500 rand in the basic wage, excluding allowances, but softened that in March to staggered increases that would amount to 12,500 rand within three or four years - still a third more than what the companies are offering in basic salaries.
The strike highlights the discontent among black miners who feel they are still not reaping the benefits of the country's mineral wealth two decades after apartheid ended.
(Additional reporting by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Ed Cropley in Johannesburg and Ed Stoddard in Mthatha; Writing by Olivia Kumwedna-Mtambo; Editing by Ed Cropley and Giles Elgood)