At least 17 dead, 80 missing in Ukrainian mine blast

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DONETSK, Ukraine, Nov 18 (Reuters) An explosion ripped through a colliery in Ukraine's Donbass coalfield today, killing at least 17 miners and leaving 80 missing in the latest of a string of accidents in the region's outdated mines.

The Committee for Labour Safety said 17 miners were dead after the 3 a.m. methane blast more than 1,000 metres (3,000 feet) underground at the Zasyadko mine in the coalfield's main town, Donetsk. The fate of 83 more was uncertain, it said.

The figures put the accident among the most serious since Ukraine secured independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Emergencies Ministry put the death toll at 19, with a further 80 unaccounted for. It said 27 miners were in hospital, one in a serious condition.

Trade unionists said smoke was hampering rescue efforts.

''There is thick smoke in the shafts and for the moment rescue teams are unable to go where they are needed,'' one trade union official at the mine, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said by telephone.

It was not known how many of the missing had been very close to the explosion.

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.

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.

Reuters SZ RN1629

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