China mine toll rises to 104

November 23, 2009 12:00 am

, HEGANG, Nov 23 – Relatives of victims angrily demanded answers Monday as hopes of finding more survivors after China\’s worst mining disaster for two years took a blow with the death toll rising to 104.

Rescuers recovered 12 more bodies, a spokesman for the mine in northeastern China\’s Heilongjiang province said, leaving four miners still unaccounted for after the weekend blast.

Efforts continued to reach the missing miners with rescuers braving toxic gases in a desperate search of the mine in the city of Hegang, said spokesman Zeng Jinguang.

"Rescue operations are still continuing. If we haven\’t found them yet we believe they are still alive," Zeng told AFP.

"If there is any chance of finding them, we will not give up."

The gas explosion ripped through the state-run Xinxing mine near the Russian border early Saturday, the latest tragedy in the country\’s notoriously dangerous mining industry.

Smoke could still be seen on Monday billowing out of an entrance to the mine, one of the largest and oldest in China, as authorities turned to the task of dealing with relatives.

Zeng said psychologists were being brought in to help survivors and relatives of victims cope with the disaster.

A group of women waited outside an entrance to the mine office in sub-zero temperatures, crying and shouting angrily in despair.

"I haven\’t had any news. My husband was only 42," wailed one of the women, tears streaming down her face.

A second woman also complained that her family had received no information about the fate of her younger brother, who was in the mine at the time of the accident.

"He was my little brother. It\’s been three days and still we haven\’t had any news," she cried.

The women, who would not give their names to AFP, were later escorted into the mine office.

Later, AFP journalists saw a crowd of dozens of people shouting in what appeared to be a protest in the city.

However, police cordoned off the crowd and authorities prevented journalists from reaching them. Zeng said the gathering was unrelated to the disaster.

The accident was the worst in energy-hungry China since an explosion killed 105 miners in Shanxi province in December 2007, and has reignited concern over safety and working conditions in the country\’s mining sector.

China\’s coal mines are among the most dangerous in the world, with safety standards often ignored in the quest for profits and the drive to meet surging demand for coal — the source of about 70 percent of China\’s energy.

Despite a high-profile government campaign to shut down unsafe and illegal mines throughout the country, hardly a week goes by in China without reports of deadly accidents that kill scores of mine workers.

Li Zhanshu, Heilongjiang\’s top government official, called for coal mine safety to be made a "top priority that we can hang our hearts on and grasp in our hands."

"We definitely cannot exchange the lives and blood of our workers to pursue GDP growth," Li, the province\’s Communist Party chief, said in remarks posted on the government\’s website.

Even as rescuers searched the Heilongjiang mine, state-run Xinhua news agency reported 11 workers had died and three were missing in a similar blast at a coal mine in central Hunan province.

A total of 528 miners were in the mine in Heilongjiang province when the blast occurred, according to the State Administration of Work Safety, and local news reports said the explosion was so powerful it was felt 10 kilometres (six miles) away.

Mine spokesman Zeng said none of the more than 60 people who were hospitalised after the explosion was in life-threatening condition.

Chinese media reports have quoted survivors saying they were frantically trying to flee the mine amid a gas build-up when the explosion occurred.

The head, deputy head and chief engineer of the mine, which is run by the majority state-owned Heilongjiang Longmay Mining Holding Group, have been removed from their posts, the China News Service had reported.

State media reports also have said an investigation would be launched into whether negligence played a part in the disaster.

Official figures show that more than 3,200 workers died in coal mines last year. But independent labour groups say many more deaths are covered up.



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