Source AP ©

Ukraine mourns victims of post-Soviet worst mine disaster

Ukraine goes into mourning for 88 coal miners who were killed by a methane blast underground, the most horrible mining catastrophe in the country since Soviet times.

Flames, smoke and fallen rock hindered rescuers searching for several miners still missing after Sunday's explosion, dimming hopes that any could be found alive in the warren of tunnels at the Zasyadko mine beneath the eastern city of Donetsk, the heart of the former Soviet republic's coal industry.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said 88 bodies had been found, making the blast the deadliest in a long string of mining disasters that have struck Ukraine since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union . A March 2000 explosion at a coal mine in the neighboring Luhansk region killed 81.

The blast at the massive Zasyadko mine, one of the country's biggest and best-known - but also the site of repeated accidents in the past decade - highlighted the dangers of Ukraine's once-proud coal industry, which is still a key element of the economy.

At a cemetery just outside the mine's sprawling grounds, mounds of freshly dug earth stood next to half a dozen new graves. Several funerals were expected later in the day at the cemetery and others around Donetsk .

On Monday, dozens of weeping relatives continued to wait at the mine's headquarters for word on the fate of their relatives. Cries and sobs broke out as officials called out names of miners found dead. Women buried their faces in the hands to stifle cries, others extended their hands into the air and some fainted.

"My son works here. He doesn't answer his mobile phone," a sobbing middle-aged woman told AP Television News. She declined to give her name. "I don't know what's happened. He is not at home. ... He has three little children."

The blast ripped through the mine at a depth of more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), the Emergency Situations Ministry said. Rescue workers struggled Monday with a stubborn fire, and the tunnel where the miners were believed buried was blocked by a rockslide triggered by the explosion, emergency officials said.

The bodies pulled from the area where the remaining miners were believed to be trapped were burnt, indicating that others could not have survived, said Mykhailo Volynets, head of the Independent Trade Union of Miners.

"Unfortunately, there is no hope," Volynets said.

Flags flew at half-staff, some of them decorated with black ribbons, with the Donetsk region in the middle of a three-day period of official mourning. Tuesday was declared a day of mourning across the nation of 47 million.

President Viktor Yushchenko, who visited Donetsk on Monday, ordered a government commission to investigate the accident and called for an overhaul of the coal mining sector.

More than three-quarters of Ukraine's roughly 200 coal mines are classified as dangerous because of high levels of methane, the concentration of which increases with depth. Mines must be ventilated to prevent explosions, but some rely on outdated ventilation equipment.

Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Klyuyev said that wasn't the case at Zasyadko.

"This is one of the most advanced mines, and it has the most modern methods of protection against methane," Klyuyev said. "Unfortunately, the deeper the mine, the more problems we encounter."

Experts say Ukraine 's mines are dangerous largely because they are so deep, typically running more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) underground. Most European coal beds lie at a depth of 500-600 meters (1,650 to 2,000 feet).

Safety violations and negligence add to the problem.

Volynets said that Ukrainian mines routinely neglect safety rules and workers are paid by the amount of coal they extract, not by the hour. He said miners routinely disable gas detectors that monitor the level of methane in order to continue work.

There is growing appetite for Ukraine's rich coal reserves, particularly with natural gas prices rising. The government has called for production to increase by one-third to 80 million tons this year.

Zasyadko is one of the best-paying mines in the country, and miners say there is high competition to get hired. One mine official said a typical miner at Zasyadko can earn around four times the country's average monthly wage of US$258 ( EUR 190); maintenance workers bring home about twice the monthly average wage.

Miners, however, still complain the pay is not proportional to the risk they take. The mine has seen several fatal accidents in recent years - 13 people were killed last year in an explosion, 20 in 2002 and 54 in 2001.

Since the Soviet collapse, more than 4,700 miners have been killed in Ukraine.

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