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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Donetsk Mine Blast Kills at Least 39

APUkrainian Emergency Situations Ministry personnel preparing to enter the mine in Donetsk after the blast on Sunday.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- A methane explosion ripped through a colliery in Ukraine's Donbass coal field on Sunday, killing at least 39 miners and leaving 51 missing in underground shafts engulfed by fire and smoke.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich announced the latest toll after flying to Donetsk, his native region, to assess the latest of a string of accidents in Donbass's outdated mines.

He said a fire burned unchecked more than 1,000 meters underground at the city's Zasyadko pit.

"There is a blockage at the accident site formed by a cave-in, airshafts and water channels. This is being cleared. Fire and smoke remain in section 14. The fire is still burning."

A trade union official said that there was only a small chance that the remaining missing miners would be rescued alive.

"The chances are small. They are poor," Yuri Zayats, head of the Zasyadko coal mine's trade union council, said by telephone from Donetsk.

It was unclear how many of those missing had been close to the explosion when it occurred at 3 a.m. Officials said 27 miners were in hospital, one in a serious condition.

The figures put the accident among the worst since Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Trade unionists said seven of the dead had been identified.

"There is thick smoke in the shafts and, for the moment, rescue teams are unable to go where they are needed," a trade union official at the mine, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said by telephone.

Weeping relatives waited for news outside the mine headquarters. Channel Five television showed survivors of the explosion in a hospital isolation ward.

"The temperature rose sharply -- so sharply that you couldn't see anything," miner Vitaly Kvitkovsky told a television crew. "I put on my breathing equipment and found my way out by feeling along the pipes and the rail lines."

Official statements said 457 miners were underground at the time of the accident. Dozens of rescue teams had brought more than 350 miners to the surface.

The Emergency Situations Ministry also reported that one miner had died in a cave-in at a coal mine in Horlivka, north of Donetsk.

Accidents are common in Ukraine's coal mines, many of which date from the mid-19th century, and Zasyadko has experienced several in recent years.

Official statistics put the death toll in mining accidents in Ukraine this year at 80, though independent trade unions say the figure is higher. Last year, 170 miners died.

Post-Soviet Ukraine's most deadly mining accident was in March 2000, when 80 miners were killed in a coal- dust explosion at a colliery near the eastern town of Luhansk.