By Peroshni Govender
MARIKANA, South Africa (Reuters) - More than 3,000 striking South African miners marched through streets near Lonmin's Marikana mine on Wednesday, the largest protest at the hot spot since police shot dead 34 of their colleagues last month.
Police armed with tear gas and assault rifles deployed armored vehicles and helicopters to keep an eye on the stick-waving protestors.
It was the strongest show of police force since the immediate aftermath of the August 16 shooting, the bloodiest security incident since the end of apartheid in 1994.
One man at the front of the column waved a placard reading "We want 12,500 or nothing else", a reference to the group's demand for a hike in base pay to 12,500 rand ($1,500) a month, more than double their current salary.
The strike for the pay rise by rock drill operators and other miners is now in its fourth week and is threatening to cripple London-headquartered Lonmin. Only 4.2 percent of its shift workers reported for duty on Wednesday.
The unrest may also hurt President Jacob Zuma before a December vote for re-election as the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), the party that dominates politics.
Another protester, who did not wish to be named, said the demonstrators were heading to the company's nearby Karee mine to "take out the people who are working in the mine shaft".
Marikana accounts for the vast majority of the platinum output of Lonmin, which itself accounts for 12 percent of global supply of the precious metal used in jewellery and vehicle catalytic converters.
The strike has raised worries that the labor unrest that has hit the platinum belt this year could spread to the gold sector. South Africa is home to 80 percent of known platinum reserves and is the world's fourth-largest gold producer.
The Marikana unrest stemmed from a year-long turf war in the platinum sector between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the small but militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
NUM, an ally of the ANC, which has run South Africa in the 18 years since white-minority rule ended, suspects the labor unrest is being fuelled to undermine its influence.
"We can see that there is an attempt to spread it," General Secretary Frans Baleni said this week. "Gold is vulnerable."
Both Marikana and Karee, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, have been closed since thousands of rock drillers went on a wildcat strike and protest nearly four weeks ago that led to the August 16 police crackdown.
Talks between Lonmin management, unions and the government to ease tensions and get the striking miners back to work are due to resume at 06:00 a.m.EDT in the nearby city of Rustenburg.
The march suggests chances of any progress is unlikely.
World platinum prices have risen more than 10 percent since the August 16 shooting, while Lonmin's Johannesburg- and London-listed shares have lost nearly 20 percent.
Lonmin shares were down another 4.9 percent on Wednesday.
($1 = 8.3921 South African rand)
(Writing by Ed Cropley and Jon Herskovitz; editing by Anna Willard)