25 dead, 12 missing in Ukraine twin mine tragedies

LUGANSK, Ukraine, July 30, 2011 (AFP) - The death toll rose to 25 Saturday from two separate coal mining accidents on the same day in Ukraine's eastern industrial district, notorious for its poor safety standards.

The Ukrainian emergency ministry raised the toll from 16 to 18 from an explosion early Friday at the Sukhodolskaya-Vostochnaya coal mine in the eastern Lugansk region.

AFP - A rescuer drinks water as he rests at Sukhodolskaya-Vostochnaya coal mine in Lugansk region on July 29, 2011.

Eight miners were still missing Saturday after that blast deep in the mine, likely caused by a buildup of deadly methane gas, while two remained hospitalised with serious burns.

The death toll from a separate accident hours later also rose to seven, and four miners remained missing Saturday after a mine headframe collapsed at the Bazhanova pit in the town of Makiyivka in the neighbouring Donetsk region.

The twin disasters were the country's worst mining accidents since more than 100 miners died in a mine explosion in 2007.

The blast at the Sukhodolskaya-Vostochnaya mine rang out at around 2 am on Friday, in an air passage more than 900 metres (2,953 feet) deep in the mine, where 28 miners were working at the time, the local emergency ministry said.

On Saturday, "eight miners remained trapped in the disaster zone," the ministry said, without indicating whether they were likely to be alive.

Rescuers were removing gas from an emergency access tunnel into the mine, in order to go down in search of the missing miners, a spokeswoman for the Lugansk regional administration told AFP.

But she said there was little hope of finding more miners alive.

"I can't say anything about this. It is unlikely," said Albina Kosheleva, the Lugansk regional administration spokeswoman.

Two miners pulled from the debris and hospitalised in the city's burns unit remained in "an extremely serious condition, on the verge of life and death," she added. A third survivor died in hospital on Friday.

The first funerals of the dead miners were due to go ahead Saturday, she said.

"Today are the first funerals of two miners. Tomorrow will be a funeral service for 11 more miners."

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was due to fly out to attend the service on Sunday, Kosheleva added.

President Viktor Yanukovych interrupted his holiday to travel to the scene of the Sukhodolskaya-Vostochnaya accident late Friday and meet relatives of victims and survivors.

He called a government commission to investigate the disasters and to work on improved safety standards to protect miners.

The mine is run by a private holding called Metinvest Group, which is controlled by Rinat Akhmetov -- Ukraine's richest man who bankrolled Yanukovych's presidential campaign in 2010.

In the separate accident in a state-owned mine in the Donetsk region, a 65-metre-high tower for raising and lowering miners into the shaft collapsed Friday, trapping workers underneath. The accident forced the closure of the mine and the evacuation of more than 500 miners.

"Seven people died, four are hospitalised and the fate of four is unknown," the emergency ministry said in a statement. "The search and rescue operation is continuing."

The concrete tower crashed to the ground, collapsing into a mass of rubble, tangled with wires, shown in photographs released by the local emergency ministry.

Deadly accidents are frequent in Ukrainian mines, most of which are located in the country's industrial eastern region. Many of the mines are underfunded and poorly equipped, while safety violations are rife.

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