(Adds new comment from government officials)
DONETSK, Ukraine, June 8 (Reuters) - Thirty-seven miners were missing after a gas explosion tore through a pit in Ukraine’s Donbass coalfield on Sunday, destroying the main shaft and complicating rescue attempts.
Officials said the blast hit the Karl Marx colliery near Donetsk in the heart of the coalfield at 5 a.m. (0200 GMT) about 1 km (3,300 feet) underground. Mining operations had been suspended and repair work was being carried out at the time.
Marina Nikitina, spokeswoman for the regional mine safety inspectorate, said 37 men were missing. Four miners working on the surface at the time of the explosion were injured.
“The shaft has been destroyed. It is impossible to go below,” she said. “The blast was very powerful. It shattered windows in the mine’s administrative office and damaged the panelling of a lift.”
Coal Industry Minister Viktor Poltavets said rescue teams were unable to go to the area where the miners were trapped.
“We sent down unmanned gondolas, but at 600 metres they could go no further,” he told Fifth Channel television. “We are readying a new cage with communications equipment and we will send people down to find out what happened to the gondolas.”
Gas explosions are a frequent occurrence in Ukraine’s outdated mines, many of which are unprofitable and date from the 19th century. The Karl Marx mine, in Yenakiyevo, northeast of Donetsk, has been in operation for 110 years.
The mine was one of 23 where work had been suspended to check on documented violations of safety procedures and only restoration and repair work was permitted.
Reports from the region said such work was being conducted at the Karl Marx colliery on Sunday and dangerous concentrations of gas had been detected shortly before the blast.
First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksander Turchynov suggested the mine could soon be closed.
“I can tell you already that is unlikely this mine will be working any longer,” Interfax Ukraine quoted him as saying before leaving Kiev for the accident site.
“Data from instruments shows that when the explosion occurred the miners were already trying to get out. But unfortunately, they didn’t make it.”
Ukrainian miners were in the forefront of forces seeking change in the dying days of communism, but post-Soviet authorities have come under pressure to shut down the pits.
Eleven miners were killed in the last explosion in the Donbass coalfield two weeks ago. Three explosions at the Zasyadko mine in Donetsk late last year killed 106 men in two weeks. (Writing by Ron Popeski; editing by Andrew Dobbie)
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