Donetsk mine explosion: Conflict hampers aid efforts in east Ukraine

Kiev says that rebels have blocked rescue workers from reaching the mine, where dozens are feared dead.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
A woman reacts as she walks past pro-Russian rebels guarding the Zasyadko mine in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Wednesday.

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Dozens of miners are missing in eastern Ukraine after an early morning explosion at a coal mine. The blast is not linked to the months-long fighting between Russia-backed rebels and the Ukrainian government, but the conflict may be holding up rescue efforts.

Separatist authorities in Donetsk said some 230 workers were in the Zasyadko mine at the time of the blast, which occurred at more than 3,280 feet underground, The Associated Press reports. The cause is believed to be the combination of gas and air.

One person is confirmed dead and 32 people are still missing, according to officials in Kiev. Rescue workers say the chance of finding survivors is slim.

The chances of finding survivors is “getting smaller and smaller all the time, because of the methane, the hot air, burns to the airways,” a medical worker told Reuters.

Nearly a year of conflict between pro-Russia separatists and the Ukrainian government in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 6,000 people. Today, Ukrainian officials accused rebels of blocking rescue efforts at the Zasyadko coal mine.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said rebels prevented a team of 60 rescue workers from accessing the site. The Ukrainian National News Agency quoted him urging Russia to tell separatists to give Kiev access: “You took millions of Ukrainians in Donetsk and Luhansk hostage and are now brutalizing miners’ families by not letting in help.”

President Petro Poroshenko chimed in on Twitter, “I demand Ukrainian rescue workers and investigators be granted access at the site of the tragedy.”

But rebel representative Denis Pushilin said Kiev never offered assistance. “If we truly need assistance, we will turn to Russia,” Mr. Pushilin told the Donetsk News Agency, AP reports.

Family members gathered around the mine entrance this morning searching for answers. “Tell me, are there survivors? Why are you concealing the truth,” the sister of one miner working at the time of the explosion asked rescue workers, Reuters reports.

"We work like crazy for peanuts. We want this place to be safe. We want our children to be able to work here," a miner arriving for the morning shift told the AP, lamenting a long history of safety violations at the mine. In 2007, more than 100 workers were killed in a mine explosion at the same mine.

Coal mining is a key industry in separatist-controlled Donetsk. But coal production in eastern Ukraine has fallen by 22 percent since the start of the conflict, leading to periodic shortages at power plants.

Though today’s blast appears to be the result of an accident, mines have been caught in the conflict’s crossfire in the past. Nearly 13 percent of mining deaths last year were a direct result of the war, with sites and workers struck by artillery, the AP reports. 

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