At least 21 coal miners have died attempting to rescue trapped workmates in northern Iran after a blast caused a tunnel to partially collapse, according to state media.
The blast occurred at 12:45pm local time (07:45 GMT) in the Zemestanyurt mine, about 14km outside the town of Azadshahr.
“Twenty-one bodies of workers … have been taken out of the mine,” a regional official in Golestan province told the semi-official Tasnim news agency. “So far there have been 69 injured.”
Agencies reported that 32 trapped miners are still missing.
“Thirty-two miners have been trapped at the end of one of the shafts 1,300 metres deep into the mine,” Golestan governor Hassan Sadeghlou said, quoted by state media.
The rescue operation was going slowly as tunnels were filled with poisonous gases and miners were stuck at the far end of a 1,000-metre shaft in a mine that is around two kilometres long.
“Some 600 metres (yards) of the tunnel has been cleared” in the mine, said Reza Bahrami, a mining industry official in Golestan.
Authorities were planning to dig a side tunnel to access the stranded workers in the mine near Azadshahr, one official there said.
Initial reports put the number of those trapped in the mine at 80, but that figure was later reduced significantly.
President Hassan Rouhani has sent the minister of labour and welfare to the mine in order to oversee the rescue operations and treatment of victims, state news agency IRNA reported.
Iran extracted 1.68m tonnes of coal in 2016, an increase on previous years, thanks to an easing of international sanctions. It exports only a fraction of the coal and uses most of it in domestic steel production.
This is not the first disaster to strike Iran’s mining industry. In 2013, some 11 workers were killed in two separate mining incidents. In 2009, some 20 workers were killed in several incidents.
Source: News agencies