At least 52 miners and rescuers have died and dozens of others are missing following an accident that saw a Siberian coal mine filled with smoke, Russian news agencies reported.
The miners were killed when coal dust caught fire, and smoke quickly filled the Listvyazhnaya mine through the ventilation system, Russia’s Tass news agency said, citing an unnamed emergency official.
Six rescuers had been killed as well, according to Tass, Ria Novosti news agency.
The mine, near the town of Belovo in the Kemerovo region, filled with smoke in the early hours of Thursday with 285 people inside.
Earlier, Kemerovo governor Sergei Tsivilev said on Telegram that while many were evacuated, at least 35 people remained trapped.
In another Telegram message, the governor said 49 had been injured and were seeking medical help.
“The chance of an explosion is very high. We’ve decided to suspend the search and rescue operation until the concentration of gas reduces,” Tsivilev said.
President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the families of the miners killed, calling it a “great tragedy”.
“I have spoken several times with Kemerovo Region Governor [Sergei Tsivilev] and the heads of rescue services,” he said during a meeting with Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“They are doing everything in their power but, unfortunately, the situation is not improving, and they are now risking their own lives. The necessary decisions are being taken on the spot. We hope that as many lives as possible will be saved,” he added.
The coal-producing region of Kemerovo, roughly 3,500 km (2,175 miles) east of Moscow, has suffered fatal mining accidents for years.
The Listvyazhnaya mine is part of SDS-Holding, owned by the privately held Siberian Business Union. There was no immediate comment from the owner.
According to news outlet Interfax, citing officials from Rostekhnadzor, Russia’s state technology and ecology watchdog, the latest inspection of the Listvyazhnaya mine took place on November 19. The report did not offer any details on the results of the inspection.
In 2016, 36 miners were killed in a series of methane explosions in Severnaya coal mine in Russia’s far north. In the wake of the incident, authorities analysed the safety of the country’s 58 coal mines and declared 20 of them potentially unsafe.
In another incident in 2010, 91 people were killed and 100 were injured at the Raspadskaya mine in Siberia.
The accident was the result of a methane explosion when more than 300 miners were inside. A second explosion then trapped a group of rescuers.
In 2007, 110 people died after a gas explosion at the Ulyanovskaya mine, in the same region.