By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Fewer than 7 percent of Lonmin's 28,000-strong South African workforce reported for duty on Thursday as the platinum producer held talks with warring unions, attempting to cool tensions and bring people back to work.
The world's third-largest platinum producer has been forced to shut its mining operations for almost three weeks because of a violent turf war between the established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which led to the deaths of 44 people this month.
That total includes 34 striking workers killed in a hail of police bullets, an event that has stiffened the resolve of surviving comrades to hold out until their demands are met.
"We have a 6.6 percent average attendance across all shafts this morning," Lonmin said in a statement.
Prosecutors said a court has accepted a petition to seek possible murder charges against 270 miners for the deaths of the 34 shot by police on the grounds that they were arrested at the scene with weapons.
Arguments on the matter will be made in a court near the mine site next week when bail hearings resume on the 270, who are in police custody, a prosecution spokeswoman said.
Critics have ridiculed the move, saying prosecutors are inflaming a tense situation by seeking a mass indictment that will eventually be rejected.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, a government watchdog, said it had received nearly 200 complaints from the arrested miners of being assaulted and abused while in custody.
The talks to end the impasse in the platinum mining city of Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, resumed on Thursday after dragging into the night on Wednesday.
Gideon du Plessis, deputy secretary general of trade union Solidarity, said discussions are to secure "a return to work agreement - with the aim of getting workers back to work on Monday after most funerals have been concluded".
He said the grievances raised by the striking workers would then be dealt with and finally, a peace accord would be reached.
Solidarity represents skilled workers, and its members have not been on strike, but all unions are taking place in the talks.
The 3,000 strikers who have brought things to a standstill are mostly rock driller operators, who demand a monthly wage of 12,500 rand ($1,500), which would amount to a hike of over 25 percent over what the company says it currently pays, excluding bonuses.
In Australia, South Africa's mines minister, Susan Shabangu, said on the sidelines of a conference that the violence was undermining investor confidence in Africa's largest economy, which sits on 80 percent of known platinum reserves.
"It is a cause for concern. The tragedy does impact on any potential investments. Any investor would like to invest in a stable environment; we've got to recognize that," she said.
Lonmin accounts for 12 percent of the global output of platinum, used in car catalytic converters and jewelry.
Lonmin has said it may issue new shares to shore up a balance sheet hit by lost output and revenue, as well as the prospect of further losses as the entire platinum sector struggles with soaring power and labor costs and poor demand.
($1 = 8.4218 South African rand)
(Additional reporting by Sherilee Lakmidas, Jon Herskovitz in Johannesburg and Rebekah Kebede in Perth; Editing by Mark Potter and Jane Baird)