DONETSK, Ukraine, Nov 18 (Reuters) - A methane explosion ripped through a colliery in Ukraine's Donbass coalfield today, killing at least 39 miners and leaving 51 missing in underground shafts engulfed by fire and smoke.
A trade union official said there was only a small chance the missing miners would be rescued alive after the blast more than 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) underground at Zasyadko mine in Donetsk.
The figures, issued by Ukraine's Emergencies Ministry, put the accident among the most serious since Ukraine won independence from Soviet rule in 1991. One official put the number of missing at 61.
Other industrial sectors in Ukraine have also been plagued by accidents causing loss of life or damage.
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich flew to Donetsk, his native region, to assess the latest of a long series of accidents in Donbass's outdated mines and said a fire was still burning unchecked several hours after the 3 am (local time) blast.
''There is a blockage at the accident site formed by a cave-in, airshafts and water channels,'' Yanukovich, dressed in black, said after a meeting of a commission of inquiry. ''This is being cleared.'' A deputy prime minister later said the fire been brought under control. Officials said 27 miners were in hospital, one in a serious condition.
President Viktor Yushchenko, the prime minister's longstanding rival, announced plans to visit Donetsk tomorrow His office quoted him as saying that Yanukovich's government had ''made insufficient efforts to reorganise the mining sector, particularly implementation of safe mining practices''.
Yuri Zayats, head of the Zasyadko coal mine's trade union council, said there was little hope of finding any of the missing miners alive. ''The chances are small. They are poor,'' he said by telephone from Donetsk.
Trade unionists said the process of identifying the bodies was under way. Smoke, they said, was hampering rescue efforts.
RELATIVES AWAIT NEWS Relatives, some weeping, others wailing loudly, waited for news in a room inside the mine headquarters. Fifth Channel television showed survivors of the explosion in a hospital isolation ward.
''The temperature rose sharply -- so sharply you couldn't see anything,'' miner Vitaly Kvitkovsky told a television crew. ''I put on my breathing equipment and found my way out by feeling the pipes and the rail lines.'' Official statements said 457 miners were underground at the time of accident. Dozens of rescue teams had brought more than 350 miners to the surface.
The Emergencies Ministry also reported that one miner had died in a cave-in at a coal mine in Horlovka, north of Donetsk.
Accidents are common in Ukraine's coal mines, many of which date from the mid-19th century, and where experts say mining deep below the surface increases the risk of explosions.
Zasyadko has experienced several accidents in recent years.
Official statistics put at 80 the death toll in mining accidents in Ukraine this year, though independent trade unions say the figure is higher. Last year, 170 miners died.
Post-Soviet Ukraine's most deadly mining accident was in March 2000, when 80 miners were killed in a coal dust explosion at a colliery near the eastern town of Luhansk.
Accidents in other sectors have been blamed on ageing equipment and negligence.
A gas explosion last month killed more than 20 people in an apartment building in Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine. In July, a train carrying phosphorous derailed in western Ukraine, causing widespread damage and prompting the evacuation of thousands of residents.
REUTERS PY VC2218