Ukraine mine blast kills 36

BBC News, Monday, 20 August, 2001, 03:06 GMT 04:06 UK

At least 36 people are dead after an explosion ripped through a coal mine in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region.

Rescue workers suspended attempts to reach the scene of the accident after a fire and temperatures of up to 80 degrees centigrade drove them back.

Officials said at least 14 miners were still missing, possibly trapped near the fire.

Rescuers will try to reach them via a different route later on Monday.

About 250 people were working underground at the Zasyadko mine when the blast occurred.

Most were brought safely to the surface but 22 needed hospital treatment.

The explosion is thought to have been triggered by a mix of coal dust and methane.

‘Piles of bodies’

A miner who escaped the accident uninjured was quoted by the Associated Press news agency as saying he saw “piles of bodies” on his way to the surface.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma ordered an investigation into the accident and expressed hope that the missing miners would be rescued, a spokesman said.

“This is a tragedy,” Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Semynozhenko was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

“We understand once again that that we must re-equip our coal industry both technically and technologically to bring it to a proper level. It is one of the state's priorities.”

He pledged to help the families of the dead and wounded.

Mine owners blamed

The head of the independent miners' union, Mikhailo Volynets, blamed the owners of the mines for the disaster.

“The safety regulations are permanently being undermined because the pit owners only think about maintaining production levels at the cost of miners' lives,” he said.

The Zasyadko mine was the scene of a methane gas explosion in May 1999 in which 50 miners died.

The death rate in Ukraine's mines started rising sharply when the government, after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, slashed subsidies to the industry.

The country's mines today are considered among the world's most dangerous.

Outdated equipment and widespread disregard for safety rules have been blamed for the accidents, which claimed 318 lives last year, and at least 140 so far this year.