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Eight escape burning Russia mine, deathtoll rises

Written by: Staff

MOSCOW, Sep 9 (Reuters) Russian rescuers brought five miners to the surface alive today and three others climbed out on their own after more than two days trapped in a burning gold mine but hopes faded for nine others still missing.

Rescuers found the five miners alive at a depth of 435 metres after three miners escaped on their own and told of the men trapped below, a spokeswoman for the Emergencies Ministry said.

But hopes were fading for nine missing miners after rescuers, struggling against thick smoke and pockets of fire, found four more bodies early today bringing the death toll from the fire to 16.

''Nine people remain below and we have no way of communicating with them. Rescuers are continuing to search,'' a spokeswoman at the Emergencies Ministry in Chita, about 6,000 km east of Moscow told Reuters.

''There is still some areas of fire and the smoke is very thick,'' she said. About 300 rescuers are taking part in search efforts but the smoke is hindering them.

The fire broke out on Thursday after welding work deep in the central shaft of the Darasun mine, in the remote Chita region of Eastern Siberia near the Chinese border, is owned by London-listed Highland Gold Mining.

Late on Friday, distraught relatives waited outside the mine for news. ''My brother is down there,'' mine worker Nikolai Bronnikov told Rossiya television, then turned away from the camera in tears.

A spokesman for Russia's Emergencies Ministry said the fire had been localised but not put out in the central shaft of the mine.

When the fire broke out, the miners were carrying breathing devices designed to last for several hours. Air was being pumped into the shaft to improve the chances of survival.

SAFETY CHECKS Russia's state environmental watchdog said it would be carrying out an urgent investigation into alleged safety violations by Highland Gold at Darasun and other mines it operates.

That investigation was later broadened to cover some mines operated by Polyus Gold -- Russia's biggest gold miner -- and several coal mining companies.

Highland Gold shares plunged 11 per cent yesterday on the London Stock Exchange to 1.53 pounds, following losses of 4.5 percent the day before.

The Darasun mine is the smaller of Highland Gold's two operational gold mines in Russia. The complex produced 11,761 ounces of gold in the first half of this year, around 13 per cent of the company's total production.

Highland Gold is one-fifth owned by Canada's Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold miner. Fleming Family&Partners and its affiliates hold 19.5 per cent and the company's Anglo-Russian management team a further 12.5 per cent.

Tucked in the desolate foothills of Chita, the Darasun mine is Russia's oldest hard-rock gold deposit with proven reserves of 31 tonnes and estimated resources of 96 tonnes.

Reuters PDM GC1502

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