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Death toll from China mine blast rises to 104

Update: 23-11-2009 | 00:00:00

HEGANG: The death toll from a coal mine blast in northeast China has climbed to 104, local authorities said early Monday, according to state media.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said four workers were still trapped in the mine shaft.

The explosion early Saturday tore through the state-run mine in Heilongjiang province near the Russian border, one of the largest and oldest in China, after a build-up of gas, survivors said.

The explosion occurred when a total of 528 miners were in the pit, according to a statement by the State Administration of Work Safety. Local news reports said the blast was felt 10 kilometres (six miles) away.

The accident was the worst in energy-hungry China's notoriously dangerous mining industry since an explosion killed 105 miners in Shanxi province in December 2007.

On Saturday, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao issued orders to take all measures to rescue workers at Hegang, while Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang was dispatched to the mine to oversee the operation, state media said.

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 said.

The director of the work safety administration is to lead an investigation into the blast, it added.

China's state prosecutor will also launch a probe to determine whether criminal negligence led to the disaster, China Central Television said.

The mine produces 1.45 million tonnes of coal a year. The company ranked 12th out of China's top 100 mining companies and seventh in terms of production volume in 2009, according to its website.

China has a dismal work safety record, with thousands of people dying every year in mines, factories and on construction sites.

Its 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 per cent of China's energy.

Official figures show that more than 3,200 workers died in collieries last year. But independent labour groups say the actual figure could be much higher, as accidents are often covered up to avoid costly mine shutdowns.

On Sunday, the provincial work safety bureau vowed to step up a reform of the industry and shut down small inefficient mines in the Heilongjiang region, Xinhua news agency said.

- AFP/so

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