Fire kills 34 men trapped in Ukraine coal mine

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The Independent Online

A pit blaze trapped and killed 34 coal miners in eastern Ukraine early yesterday.

A pit blaze trapped and killed 34 coal miners in eastern Ukraine early yesterday.

"Thirty people were in a trolley that was going down and three others were found near it, killed by smoke inhalation," said a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. "They have found their bodies, they are all dead."

They said rescue efforts had later turned up the body of another miner, who was not supposed to be working at the time, bringing the death toll to 34. It was the latest of many mining tragedies to plague the former Soviet state, and came only a few hours after President Leonid Kuchma spoke about the problems faced by the country's ailing coal industry on Saturday.

Twenty-nine firefighting teams were still tackling the blaze 12 hours after it broke out. It began about 570 metres (1,900ft) underground in the Ukraina mine at the town of Ukrainsk, in the ageing Donbass coalfield near Donetsk, where 107 miners were working. Firefighters had said they were struggling to reach one area of the pit. They had been pushed back by flames and thick smoke, officials said.

The fire started before dawn around a conveyor belt. Even in the early stages of the blaze, officials said there was little hope of finding the miners alive.

Ukrainian media said another fire broke out on Saturday night in a coal mine further west, near the town of Krivih Rih. Sixty men working underground were rescued and the fire was put out.

As rescuers tried to bring victims at the Ukraina mine to the surface, a government commission led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Oleh Dubyna, headed to the Donetsk region, at the heart of the coalfields, to investigate the fire.

More than 3,700 miners have died in Ukraine's deep and dilapidated coal mines, which are plagued by poor working conditions, lax safety rules and lack of funds for modernisation since independence in 1991. The State Labour Safety Committee reported that 116 miners were killed in industrial accidents in Ukraine from January to June this year. About 300 miners died last year with 54 being killed in a methane gas explosion at the Zasiadko mine in Donetsk

Ukraine's coal industry is expensive and dangerous but politicians fear even more the social costs of closing the pits, which employ 450,000 people at 193 sites in areas that have few alternative jobs.