Rescuers close to 3 trapped Honduran miners, 8 still missing

SAN JUAN ARRIBA, Honduras, July 4 Fri Jul 4, 2014 1:17pm EDT

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SAN JUAN ARRIBA, Honduras, July 4 (Reuters) - Rescuers on Friday were meters (yards) away from three miners trapped by a landslide at an illegal gold mine in southern Honduras, but eight more remained unaccounted for as the search moved well into its second day.

The workers were trapped when the entrance to the mine in San Juan Arriba collapsed on Wednesday. Officials said the mine, 70 miles (110 km) south of the Central American nation's capital Tegucigalpa, had been ordered to close a few months ago because it was unsafe.

"We're about to rescue three of the trapped workers," said Oscar Cruz, a spokesman for El Salvador's Green Cross, which came to help with the search effort. "We're three or four meters away from them and we're opening up a gap in the landslide to pull them out."

Rescuers said they were in contact with the three men, who told them they were scared, hungry, thirsty and suffering from the heat. Emergency workers have been providing water to them.

Hundreds of family members surrounded the entrance to the mine, watching rescue workers pulling debris from the scene of the landslide as they awaited news of their loved ones.

Hopes of a major breakthrough surged on Wednesday night when Honduran President Juan Hernandez sent a tweet from the scene, saying that eight of the miners had been freed. However, shortly afterwards he deleted the tweet and apologized for reporting false news.

"The first 24 hours are vital in rescue operations and now we're at 40 hours and the situation is worrying," fire services spokesman Marco Artica told Reuters. "We're in contact with three of the miners but we don't know where the other eight are."

The collapse occurred in a drought-stricken region of Honduras that had been a gold mining center for Spanish colonists. The rise in gold prices in recent years had spurred dozens of small mines to open in the area.

Honduran deputy environment minister Carlos Pineda told local television the mine was illegal and that it had been ordered closed by mining authorities several months ago. (Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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