May 13, 2010 / 4:57 AM / 10 years ago

Russian mine search halted, death toll reaches 66

A man grieves at a grave of a rescue worker, killed during a blast at a mine, in Osinniki settlement in Kemerovo region, May 12, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian rescue workers on Thursday stopped searching for 24 men still missing after a mine disaster that killed at least 66 because of fears of new underground blasts, the emergencies ministry said.

A methane gas blast ripped through the Raspadskaya mine on Saturday night, followed hours later by a stronger explosion that wrecked the main ventilation shaft and badly damaged buildings on the surface.

“Search operations have been halted,” Pavel Plat, an emergencies ministry official, said.

Fires burning in the Siberian mine and high levels of methane gas could lead to new explosions, he said in a statement.

“Our task is to put out the fires and decrease the gas concentrations — only after that can we send people in there,” Plat said. “Unfortunately, conditions have worsened.”

The bodies of six miners were brought to the surface overnight, taking the confirmed death toll to 66, the ministry said. It said 24 miners were missing.

The disaster at the mine in the city of Mezhdurechensk, 3,000 km (1,850 miles) east of Moscow, was the deadliest in a Russian mine since 110 people were killed by a methane blast at another mine in the coal-rich Kemerovo region in March 2007.

In remarks shown on state television, President Dmitry Medvedev told top law enforcement and security officials to determine what led to the blasts and who may bear responsibility.

“The results of this investigation, which presumably will take some time, must be absolutely public, because many of our comrades died there — many of our people,” Medvedev said.

Reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Maria Golovnina

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