Almost half of the 277 deaths caused by mining in South Africa over the past year have been at illegal operations, according to Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabanga.

The minister told parliament that 135 deaths of illegal miners occurred between 1 June 2008 and 1 June 2009, Reuters reports.

Some 168 workers died in legal operations in 2008, 24% less than 2007 figures.

A presidential mine safety audit, released earlier this year, termed the levels of safety compliance in the industry ‘disappointing’, Reuters said.

Some of the big mining companies have been ordered to halt operations temporarily as the government tries to improve safety measures but this has had little impact on illegal mining, which has become more common due to high metals prices.