17 dead, one missing in Russian coal mine blast

Seventeen miners were killed and one person was missing Monday after a methane explosion tore through a coal mine in the remote Russian Far North, the latest disaster to hit the country's accident-prone mining industry.

"Seventeen people were killed," emergencies ministry spokeswoman Elena Smirnykh told AFP.

One other miner was missing and feared dead after the explosion at the Vorkutinskaya mine controlled by Russian steel-making giant Severstal in the Komi region town of Vorkuta, the ministry said, adding that the explosion was caused by methane.

The interior ministry for the Komi region put the toll at 18 dead.

A total of 259 miners were working underground at the time, with 23 in the shaft where the explosion took place at a depth of 800 metres (0.5 miles), the Moscow-based emergencies ministry said.

Five of those in the shaft were rescued -- two received treatment at the scene and three were hospitalised, health officials said.

Two of the hospitalised men were in intensive care with multiple fractures and burns, the regional health ministry said, adding that one of them was "in extremely grave" condition.

Rescue operations were briefly halted to remove methane from the mine, Smirnykh said, adding that rescue efforts were continuing as of 1500 GMT.

A plane was dispatched from Moscow to help with the rescue works, and plans were in place to send another plane to Vorkuta.

President Vladimir Putin ordered Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov to personally go to the mine to oversee the rescue operation.

"The head of state expressed deep condolences to the relatives and loved ones of the killed miners," the Kremlin said in a statement.

The families of the dead miners will receive two million rubles ($66,000) each, emergencies ministry spokeswoman Smirnykh said.

Severstal also said in a statement it would pay compensation to the affected families.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tasked his deputy Arkady Dvorkovich with the responsibility to provide assistance to families of the dead miners.

"An accident took place in Komi," a grim-faced Medvedev said in televised remarks. "Put together the complete information and report on what is happening."

The Russian Investigative Committee has opened a criminal inquiry into a possible breach of safety rules at a mine.

The task force charged with investigating the accident has until March 1 to report on the reasons behind the blast, regional authorities said.

The mine is operated by Vorkutaugol, part of Severstal's coal mining division whose mills it provides with hard coking coal concentrate.

It has been working since 1973 with an output of 1.8 million tonnes of coal a year and its reserves of coal are estimated at 40 million tonnes.

Vorkutaugol spokesman Yevgeny Sukharev said the company paid "unprecedented attention" to safety standards. "Everyone is in shock," he told AFP.

Known for its extremely inhospitable climate, Vorkuta was home to one of the most infamous Stalin-era prison camps, the Vorkuta Gulag.

Deadly blasts remain a frequent occurrence in the coal mining industry in Russia despite recent drives to improve safety.

In 2010, more than 60 people were killed in twin methane blasts at Russia's biggest underground coal mine, the Raspadskaya mine in the Kemerovo region of Siberia.

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