BOGOTA An explosion at a small underground coal mine in northeast Colombia killed 20 workers on Wednesday, officials said, in the latest accident to hit Latin America's mining industry.
Colombia is the world's No. 5 coal exporter, with an industry dominated by major players with open-pit mines. But some smaller mines in the Andean nation are dug underground where methane gas buildups can cause accidents.
The mining regulator Ingeominas said the latest blast, in Norte de Santander province, was probably caused by methane gas and preliminary figures showed 20 fatalities.
"They've just told me there are 20 dead and six wounded," Marisa Fernandez of Ingeominas told Reuters by telephone.
Colombia's Red Cross said that eight bodies had been recovered so far along with six injured, adding that there was little chance of the remaining 12 or so miners being alive.
"I hope (God) favors me with another type of job to support my family, not this kind of mining in a murderous mine," an unnamed miner told a local television station.
Other miners, one on the verge of tears, said they feared all their colleagues were dead. Local media reported there had been other deadly blasts at the same mine in the past.
Rescuers continued searching for survivors.
The explosion was the latest in a series of mine accidents in South America, including a collapse in Chile in August that buried 33 workers until they were rescued to international jubilation after two months underground.
Colombia said that Chile was going to send a group of rescuers to help, while the government said it had shut the La Preciosa mine.
In June, a blast killed 70 miners in Colombia and, in November, nine people died at two small coal mines in the central Colombian province of Cundinamarca.
Despite the recent run of accidents, conditions for workers in Latin America's mines have improved radically in recent decades from the nightmarish conditions of past centuries after Spanish conquistadors began a hunt for gold.
The modern-day industry has helped fuel an economic boom in some nations, including Colombia, where mining is one of the main generators of foreign exchange.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra and Luis Jaime Acosta; editing by Anthony Boadle and Philip Barbara)