Miners hold 22 hostage in Siberia

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The Independent Online
Twenty-two people were being held hostage last night by workers at a Siberian coal mine. As Phil Reeves reports from Moscow, tensions are running high in a disaster-plagued and outdated industry which faces a huge overhaul.

Simmering anger over late pay, lousy conditions and sweeping cuts erupted into the open from the dark and dangerous caverns of Russia's coal pits yesterday.

Some 1,500 miners in the Far East blockaded the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway near Vladivostok for several hours alongside 1,000 defence workers. No sooner had they dispersed than 150 mine workers at a privatised pit took hostage their director and 21 others. Last night, the captives were still being held in their offices at Polisayevo, in southern Siberia.

Both incidents are further signs of the anger and restlessness that prevails among Russia's coal miners, who helped springboard Boris Yeltsin into power in 1991 but have since grown disillusioned with his rule. Frustration over unpaid wages and dismal conditions has been deepened by the prospect of a fundamental overhaul in which many thousands will lose their jobs.

Last month, the Russian government announced plans to close 86 of the country's 200 mines this year. It cannot afford to go on allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to coal which receives more than any other sector except agriculture. So it plans to focus on selling off profitable pits and shutting down loss makers.

Yet those miners who escape the axe will scarcely relish the prospect of carrying on toiling underground. Two disasters in less than two months have served as a grisly reminder to the outside world of the decrepit and under-funded conditions that they daily endure.

In the first, on 2 December, 67 men were killed in a methane explosion in the Siberian town of Novokuznetsk. Television images of long lines of coffins accompanied by distraught widows were still fresh in the national memory when another blast occurred, this time in a shaft at the Arctic former penal colony of Vorkuta on 19 January. Twenty-seven workers were killed.

If they go ahead, this year's sweeping closures will add to the suffering. The prospects look grim for scores of remote communities that were built from the Arctic to the Far East by Soviet central planners who cared nothing for market economics, but a great deal about coal.

To help restructure the sector, the World Bank recently agreed to a $800m (pounds 500m) loan, which may help ease the social consequences. However, it is hard to feel certain of this, given the level of corruption and bureaucracy in Russia. The bank's last loan earmarked for the coal industry - $500m - ended up being diverted to other pockets.

The miners believe they have been betrayed. They are keenly aware that they played a leading role in helping Mr Yeltsin oust Mikhail Gorbachev from the Kremlin by staging mass strikes in 1989 and 1991.

Mr Yeltsin has made some moves to soothe their feelings. His first radio address of the new year was devoted to lambasting officials responsible for holding up wages. But the miners have heard it all before. Two years ago, the Kremlin pledged to pay them according to a "tough monthly schedule". Yet some are still having to wait seven months for a pay packet.