Colombia coal blast kills 16 miners, 70 feared dead

AMAGA, Colombia – More than 70 Colombian miners were trapped and feared dead Thursday in a coal mine explosion that could become one of the Andean country’s worst mining accidents.

At least 16 bodies were pulled from the wreckage after the midnight gas explosion at the San Fernando mine in northwestern Antioquia province. The death toll was expected to rise.

The blast occurred far from the major mining operations run by companies such as Drummond and Glencore near the Caribbean coast of the world’s No. 5 coal exporter.

Relatives sobbed and hugged each other and anxiously pressed rescue workers for news as hearses ferried bodies from the wreckage of the mine blast.

“This is a huge tragedy. Initially we have reports of 72 people trapped and now we have 16 bodies recovered,” President Alvaro Uribe said.

Luz Amanda Pulido, a national disaster official, told local radio there was little chance any miners would be pulled out alive.

A new accumulation of gas temporarily halted attempts to reach miners trapped 6,500 feet below the surface, rescue workers on the ground said.

Colombia has enjoyed a boom in energy and mining investment under Uribe, who sent troops out to drive back left rebels who once controlled large parts of the country and targeted oil pipelines as part of Latin America’s oldest insurgency.

MINING AN ELECTION ISSUE

Uribe steps down in August and his former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is favored to succeed him in a run-off vote on Sunday. The country’s commodities boom is an election issue with candidates debating how to handle an influx of mining and oil dollars.

The disaster could also highlight mining safety regulations in a country where the industry ranges from large deposits operated by multinationals to hundreds of small, makeshift pits that produce coal for local markets.

Just as news of the explosion was breaking, workers at Glencore’s La Jagua’s coal mine in Cesar province went on strike over conditions after failing to reach an agreement with the company, a union said.

No details were immediately available on the owners of the San Fernando mine or its production.

Five miners died in the same mine during a flood two years ago, local media reported. Last year, a methane gas explosion in another Antioquia province coal mine killed eight workers and in 2007, 31 miners were killed in an explosion Norte de Santander in one of the country’s worst mining disasters.

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