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Rescue Efforts Continue After Blast Kills Over 30 at Ukraine Coal Mine

While Wednesday's explosion was not caused by military conflict in the region, there is dispute over whether the ongoing armed struggle hampered responses in the aftermath.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 5 2015, 12:38pm

Photo by Vadim Ghirda/AP

Rescue efforts at Zasyadko coal mine in rebel-held Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, resumed this morning as workers tried to locate a final miner still missing after a blast more than 1,000 meters below ground. In the 24 hours after Wednesday's explosion the death toll slowly climbed, and reaching 32 by 10am local time on Thursday. At least 200 men were evacuated from the pits immediately after the incident with scores requiring hospital treatment.

Nearly a year of bitter fighting between pro-Russia rebel forces and Kiev government troops has killed more than 6,000 people in Ukraine's east. On Wednesday afternoon, however, rebel authorities confirmed that this blast was likely caused by an underground methane explosion and not connected to the artillery war that has raged across the city in recent months.

Related: 'This is meant to be my childhood': Life inside one of Donetsk's claustrophobic underground bomb shelters. Read more here.

Safety standards in Ukraine's unprofitable state mines have long been poor and the wages for workers low. In 2007, three separate accidents at Zasyadko killed 162 workers, including 101 in one single incident. This facility is considered to be particularly dangerous and vulnerable due to high levels of underground methane. A statement on rebel-held media DAN News described the mine as the "most dangerous in Ukraine." In 2000, an accidental blast at Barakova mine, in neighboring Luhansk Oblast, killed 80.

The conflict, however, may have hampered rescue efforts, with the Ukrainian prime minister telling parliament that a team of 60 rescuers sent from Ukraine was blocked from reaching the mine to provide assistance. 

The rebel leader said that if assistance were required the authorities of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic would 'turn to Russia' anyway.

However, the rebel authorities said no such assistance was required. "In the Donetsk People's Republic there are four paramilitary rescue units," Alex Kostrubitsky, the minister for emergency situations, told DAN News. "We have more than enough equipment and for rescue work," he added.

Rebel leader Denis Pushilin responded by saying that Ukraine had not made any offer of help and that if assistance were required the authorities of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic would "turn to Russia" anyway.

In the hours after the explosion confusion surrounded the body count with reported figures ranging from one to 33. Both sides in the conflict have offered their condolences to those killed and injured in the tragedy.

Related: 'It is a government crime': The coffins of Russia's ghost soldiers in Ukraine are coming home. Read more here.

"On my own behalf and on behalf of the administration of the city of Donetsk [we] express condolences to the families of miners who have suffered on March 4 at Zasyadko mine. With all my heart I share the bitter pain of irreparable loss and grieve with you and your families," the head of Donetsk city administration Igor Martynov said in a statement. Meanwhile, Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko declared Thursday a day of morning for those killed in the incident.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @harrietsalem