At least 61 die in Siberian mine explosion

 

Rescuers struggled yesterday to find more survivors at a coal pit in western Siberia where at least 61 miners were killed in a methane gas explosion - one of Russia's worst mining disasters in decades.

Six miners suffering from burns and other injuries were taken to hospital, but their lives were not in danger, rescuers said.

Sixty-one bodies were brought out of the Zyryanovskaya mine near Novokuznetsk after the explosion on Monday night, but the final toll was not known, since the exact number of miners in the pit had not been established. Initially local authorities said 67 miners were underground when the blast occurred at a depth of 330 metres, but later estimates put the figure at more than 100.

It was the worst mine accident to hit a European country since 263 people died in an explosion at the Kozlu mine in Turkey in 1992.

"According to our information, five miners are still down there, and their fate is unknown. We don't have much hope now," said Mr Ruben Bodalov, deputy head of the miners' union Rosugleprof.

The blast occurred late on Monday as one night shift was handing over to another in the mine.

Some 300 rescuers from all over the Kuzbass coal basin were drafted in. It was the worst mining disaster in the Kuzbass since 1982, when 39 miners died at the Pionerka pit near Belovo.

The Kuzbass and Vorkuta in the far north are Russia's largest coal regions, and both have suffered from the chronic wage delays and inter-enterprise debts afflicting the Russian economy.

A high-level government commission was due to arrive in the region from Moscow, headed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Oleg Sysuyev, but the flight was delayed due to bad weather.

President Yeltsin, who is visiting Sweden, sent condolences to the victims' families.

A year ago nearly 500,000 coalminers angry over delayed wages went on strike in one of the biggest mass protests in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.