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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rescuers Abandon Hope for 23 Miners

VORKUTA, Far North -- Rescuers abandoned hope Monday of saving 23 coal miners trapped underground in the Russian Arctic and focused on putting out a fire so they could recover the bodies.

An official at Rosugol, Russia's state-owned coal company, said the plan is to seal off the Tsentralnaya mine to stop the oxygen feeding the fire and open it later only to get the bodies.

"They are sealing off entrances and exits to stop the inflow of oxygen, otherwise it will not be possible to stop the fire," said the duty officer, speaking from Rosugol's Moscow headquarters Tuesday.

"Then they will be opened to get the bodies," he said.

Twenty-two miners were brought to the surface safely after the explosion Sunday. So far, the bodies of only four dead miners have been recovered.

An emergency services spokeswoman in Vorkuta said earlier Tuesday that the rescuers might flood the mine to put out the fire.

"There is practically no hope of finding them alive," she said of the missing miners. "There is a fire inside and it's too dangerous to try to extinguish it because of the strong buildup of methane. We're considering flooding the affected area," she said, adding that this would end any chances of a successful rescue.

The men were trapped on Sunday by an explosion 900 meters below ground at the Tsentralnaya mine in Vorkuta, about 2,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

Three kilometers of tunnels were blocked by rubble, cutting off the missing men from the exit and making it all but impossible for rescuers to reach them or find out how they were.

Journalists were kept away from the mine.

Officials said the blast was probably caused by a methane gas buildup. Last month, a methane explosion killed 68 miners at Novokuznetsk in Siberia.

A special government commission set up by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is in Vorkuta to oversee the rescue operation and investigate the blast.

The commission is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yakov Urinson.

Interfax quoted Urinson as saying five to seven days would be needed to put out the fire. Special air shafts and isolation shutters were being used to extinguish it.

The Vorkuta basin is the second largest coal field in Russia.

In recent months, there have been a number of explosions and fires at Russian mines, many of which are old and use outdated equipment. In addition to the 68 killed in Novokuznetsk last month, three other accidents last year killed 13 miners.

The World Bank granted Russia $500 million in credits to restructure its coal industry but much of this has been spent on paying off wage arrears to miners. Part of an $800 million World Bank loan is also due to be spent on the coal industry.