LUGANSK, Ukraine, July 29, 2011 (AFP) - Eighteen miners died and another 20 were missing Friday in two separate accidents at coal mines in the east of Ukraine, an industrial region notorious for its mining safety record.
At least 16 miners were killed instantly as a result of an explosion at the Sukhodolskaya-Vostochnaya coal mine in the eastern Lugansk region early Friday, the emergencies ministry said.
Another three workers received burns and other injuries and were hospitalised, it said. One of the injured died later of his wounds.
"The fate of nine miners remains unknown," said the Kiev-based emergencies ministry in a statement, adding that a total of 28 people were working at the pit when the explosion occurred at 1:57 am Friday.
The Lugansk regional administration, citing preliminary information, said the accident was caused by a methane explosion, which has caused most of the country's past mining disasters.
In a separate accident in Makiyivka mine in the neighbouring Donetsk region, one person was killed, three hospitalised and 11 were missing, the emergencies ministry said.
The ministry said the 70 metre-high (230 feet) mine headframe, which is used to lower miners down into the mine and bring them up again, collapsed.
President Viktor Yanukovych interrupted his vacation and was expected at the Lugansk mine, which is part of the Krasnodonugol mining company, his spokeswoman Darya Chepak told AFP.
He also cancelled plans to attend the Formula 1 Power Boat Grand Prix near Kiev, his administration said.
Ukraine's Energy Minister Yury Boiko earlier arrived at the mine to personally take charge of the rescue operation.
An official with Group Metinvest, a private holding that includes the company operating the mine, said the Sukhodolskaya-Vostochnaya mine had modern equipment but was one of the most dangerous coal mines in the country as it had high levels of methane and had experienced accidents in the past.
"The company spent huge money to upgrade it," he told AFP on condition of anonymity. "But the mine is incredibly dangerous."
Albina Kosheleva, the Lugansk regional administration spokeswoman, also said the mine boasted modern equipment and the safety procedures there were at a "decent level."
The Group Metinvest official said families of the miners killed in the blast would each receive one million hryvnias ($125,000).
Dmitry Kalitventsev, leader of a local miners' trade union, expressed fears the rescue teams would find more dead.
"Even though there are reports of 16 dead, it is most likely that all of them died," he told AFP, referring to the missing workers.
Deadly accidents are frequent in the Ukrainian mines, most of which are located in the country's industrial eastern region. Many of the mines are underfunded and poorly equipped, while safety violations are rife.
In the worst accident of its kind in the country's post-Soviet history, more than 100 miners were killed in an explosion in 2007 at the Zasyadko mine, one of the three biggest in Ukraine.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sent a telegram to his Ukrainian counterpart Yanukovych, expressing "sincere condolences" over the loss of life at the Lugansk region mine.