Russia Riot Police Deployed in Coal Town as Blasts Spark Unrest

May 17 (Bloomberg) — About 200 Russian riot police were deployed in a Siberian coal town to quell protests over pay and working conditions sparked by one of the deadliest mine accidents since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A dozen buses filled with elite OMON forces from across Siberia ringed the center of Mezhdurechensk in the Kemerovo region today, more than a week after twin explosions destroyed OAO Raspadskaya’s flagship mine, killing 66 and leaving 24 unaccounted for when rescue work was halted May 13.

As many as 3,000 people gathered in the center of Mezhdurechensk, a city of 100,000 on the Trans-Siberian Railway, late on May 14 to demand “fair pay,” Vladimir Chernykh, a retired Raspadskaya employee representing the mine’s 4,000 workers, said in an interview. Some of the protestors were “drunk youngsters” who tried to block traffic on the country’s longest rail link, delaying about 20 trains, said Nadezhda Gulyaeva, a spokeswoman for the local government.

Chernykh said Raspadskaya’s payment system encourages miners to skirt safety rules to meet production targets.

“There are dozens of ways to cheat a methane detector, from making a hole in a ventilation tube to covering it with a wet rag,” Chernykh said at a meeting with authorities and company management today.

Putin, Zubkov

“Whole crews participate in this race for meters and tons to earn the money they need to feed their families and repay loans and mortgages,” Chernykh said.

Miners can earn 40,000 rubles ($1,300) a month if they meet production goals, or 60 percent more than their base pay of 25,000 rubles, company spokeswoman Galina Kovalchuk said. The mine, which accounts for 11 percent of the coal used by Russian steelmakers, may take a year and 5 billion rubles to fully repair, Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleyev said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered an investigation into the accident during a trip to the site May 11, saying the entire industry needs to learn lessons from the disaster and improve working conditions for miners. Putin ordered the government to award the families of each killed worker about 1 million rubles in compensation, an amount Raspadksaya Chief Executive Officer Gennady Kozovoy said the company would match.

First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov is scheduled to arrive in Mezhdurechensk later today to meet with local officials, Raspadskaya executives and miners. Kozovoy told local television channel TM-Kvant that a special commission created to work on the problems raised by miners will hold its first session tomorrow.

“We’re transferring the staff to other mines and want to find work for as many as we can,” Kozovoy said in the interview, which was posted on Youtube.com. “April salaries were paid in full yesterday.”

Investigators are considering several possible causes of the accident, including improper use of mining equipment, human error and malfunctioning machinery, according to the Emergency Ministry. The first of two blasts occurred late on May 8 about 500 meters (1,640 feet) underground and was powerful enough to damage buildings on the surface.

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