More than 70 Colombian miners were trapped and all were feared dead on Thursday after an explosion ripped through a coal mine in what could become one of the Andean country's worst mining disasters.
At least 16 bodies were pulled from the wreckage after the midnight gas explosion at the San Fernando mine in northwestern Antioquia province and the death toll was expected to rise as rescue workers worked their way down the mine shift.
The blast occurred far from the major mining operations run by companies such as Drummond and Glencore near the Caribbean coast of the world's No. 5 coal exporter which has output of 70 million tonnes a year and is enjoying a boom in investment.
Relatives sobbed and hugged each other and anxiously pressed rescue workers for news as bodies wrapped in white sheets were carried from the wreckage to waiting hearses.
"This is a huge tragedy. Initially we have reports of 72 people trapped and now we have 16 bodies recovered," President Alvaro Uribe said.
Luz Amanda Pulido, a national disaster official, told local radio there was little chance any miners would be pulled out alive.
A new accumulation of gas had temporarily halted attempts to reach miners trapped 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) below the surface, rescue workers on the ground said.
Colombia has enjoyed a boom in energy and mining investment under Uribe, who sent troops out to drive back left rebels who once controlled large parts of the country and targeted oil pipelines as part of Latin America's oldest insurgency.
San Fernando mine produces 240,000 tonnes a year of coal for the local consumption, according to Mines and Energy Minister Hernan Martinez. He said the mine had been inspected on June 9 and was found to lack gas detectors.
Mining an election issue
Uribe steps down in August and his former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is favored to succeed him in a run-off vote on Sunday. The country's commodities boom is an election issue with candidates debating how to handle an influx of mining and oil dollars.
The disaster could also highlight mining safety regulations in a country where the industry ranges from large deposits operated by multinationals to hundreds of small, makeshift pits that produce coal for local markets.
Just as news of the explosion was breaking, workers at Glencore's La Jagua's coal mine in Cesar province went on strike over conditions after failing to reach an agreement with the company, a union said.
Five miners died in the same mine during a flood two years ago, local media reported. Last year, a methane gas explosion in another Antioquia province coal mine killed eight workers and in 2007, 31 miners were killed in an explosion Norte de Santander in one of the country's worst mining disasters.
ReutersGüncelleme Tarihi: 18 Haziran 2010, 08:43