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21 feared dead in Colombia coal mine blast

SARDINATA, Jan 27 – An explosion ripped through a coal mine Wednesday in northeastern Colombia, leaving up to 21 miners feared dead.

Fourteen bodies have been recovered, senior Sardinata municipal official Alvaro Silva told AFP in updating the official toll from an earlier count of 11 dead.

The Colombian Institute of Geology and Mines, which sent rescue teams to the scene, held out little hope that the remaining seven miners were still alive.

"Because of the scope of the disaster, it is impossible that they survived," said a spokesman for INGEOMINAS, which supervises Colombia\’s mines.

Search teams earlier removed six bodies wrapped in white plastic bags from the La Preciosa mine.

Officials had said the bodies of four other miners had been recovered and a fifth man died of his injuries after being taken to a local hospital. At least six miners were hospitalized with injuries.

The blast may have been caused by an accumulation of methane gas, said Sardinata Mayor Yamil Rangel.

The mine is located about an hour outside Sardinata in Norte de Santander province, which borders Venezuela.

Mines Minister Carlos Rodado said the site, the scene of two previous mine disasters since 2007, would be closed "until an investigation determines whether it was respecting all the rules."

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It was not immediately clear how many miners were trapped because the explosion ripped through the mine during a 6:30 am (1130 GMT) shift change, said Silva.

Provincial Governor William Villamizar told RCN radio that a methane blast "exploded like a cannon shot, creating a flame inside the mine."

Civil defense, firefighters and even military personnel were at the scene helping in rescue efforts. "But we understand that it is very difficult to survive an explosion of that nature," Villamizar said.

He said the mine is under the "rigorous control" of national safety inspectors with INGEOMINAS.

At the scene was 63-year-old miner Fabio Veloso, who spoke with disdain of the industry\’s safety record. He escaped the explosion by luck, having emerged on a shift break moments earlier.

Two brothers and a cousin were with him when he entered the mine in the morning.

"I\’ve been through many experiences where people I know have died," he said, still unaware of whether his relatives had escaped the blast or died in the accident.

Six miners were killed and two others injured in a similar accident at the same mine in October.

Silva said some 30 people were killed in another accident at the mine in 2007, even though the site, which produces coal for the local market, met safety standards at the time.

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Nearly 100 coal miners were killed in work-related accidents across Colombia last year, according to government figures.

Geologist and mining industry expert Julio Fierro Morales said the Colombian government lacks resources to properly monitor mine safety.

"It is possible to diminish the frequency and probability of these accidents in Colombia with gas detectors and measures to prevent mine shaft collapses," Fierro Morales said.

According to the analyst, mine owners were clearly not meeting safety standards, and the government did not have the resources to enforce the rules: 50 inspectors oversee 10,000 mines, 4,000 of which are currently being operated.

Last year, Colombia became the world\’s fifth largest coal exporter after Indonesia, Australia, Russia and South Africa. It produced 75 million tonnes of coal in 2010, according to government figures.

Mario Sepulveda, one of the 33 men rescued from deep inside a northern Chilean mine in October 2010, told Caracol TV he was praying for the trapped Colombian miners to return home safe and sound.

The Chilean miners became global media stars following the dramatic rescue, which brought a cascade of invitations for media appearances and endorsements.


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