Rio Tinto has suspended mining and smelting operations at Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) in South Africa amid escalation in community violence.

The Anglo-Australian mining firm has also declared force majeure on customer contracts at RBM operations in KwaZulu-Natal province.

Operations, however, are planned to be resumed once the safety and security position is improved, Rio said.

The latest move comes after RBM general manager Nico Swart was reportedly murdered last month.

Swart represents the third RBM employee to be killed since 2015, reported Sydney Morning Herald.

Rio Tinto minerals chief executive Sinead Kaufman said: “The safety of our people is our top priority.

“We continue to offer our full support to the investigating authorities and I would like to acknowledge the ongoing support of the regional and national governments and South African Police Service as we work together to ensure that we can safely resume operations.”

Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) is South Africa’s largest mineral sands producer and beneficiation company. RBM was formed in 1976 to mine the vast mineral-rich sands of the northern KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, the mine produces predominantly rutile, zircon, titania slag, titanium dioxide feedstock and high purity iron.

RBM currently operates four mines in the Zulti North lease area, in addition to a mineral separation plant and smelting facility.

Blue Horizon, a BBBEE consortium consisting of lead investors and the four host communities, holds a 24% interest in the RBM while an employee trust owns the remaining 2% stake.

Work at the Zulti South project, which expands the lease area of Richards Bay Minerals, has been remained on full suspension since 2019 due to security and community issues.