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Hopes fade for Iran miners after 21 die in failed rescue bid [The Nation] 04 May, 2017

Rescuers battled hazardous conditions Thursday at a coal mine in northern Iran where 21 miners died in a failed attempt to save workmates trapped deep underground after an explosion.

Hopes of finding 14 missing miners alive were fading after the blast Wednesday at the mine in Azadshahr in Golestan province, where three days of mourning were declared.

The rescue operation at the Zemestan Yort mine was hampered by poisonous gases that filled the tunnels as well as by fears of a further collapse.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei offered condolences for the "very bitter" tragedy.

"Efforts by various organisations will be rewarded (by God). They (should) increase their efforts as much as possible," he said in a message.

President Hassan Rouhani also expressed sorrow for victims of the disaster, which has overshadowed his re-election campaign.

"The hope of finding the remaining 14 miners still alive is now minimal," Sadegh-Ali Moghadam, emergencies director in Golestan, was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

He said the bodies of the 21 miners were found at a depth of 600 metres (yards) and rescue teams have descended 1,400 metres into the tunnel where the blast happened.

"The problem is the upper arch which has been weakened by the explosion. Miners are working to secure the tunnel" to be able to move forward, he said.

The tunnel caved in when methane gas exploded underground as workers tried to jump-start a locomotive engine, according to initial reports.

Rouhani ordered all departments "to use all equipment available to facilitate the rescue services and save those trapped".

"The painful incident involving a number of hard-working miners in the Azadshahr mine brought sorrow and mourning to all Iranian people," he said.

Gas poisoning

Images broadcast on state television IRIB showed the evacuation of injured and exhausted miners on stretchers as rescue services worked relentlessly at the entrance to one of the mine tunnels.

Around 30 miners were treated in hospitals for gas poisoning and injuries, state news agency IRNA reported.

There was no information on the condition of those trapped.

The workers sent to hospital were among those who had rushed from outside to help the victims after the blast.

Rouhani sent Minister of Labour and Welfare Ali Rabii to the mine to oversee the rescue operations and treatment of victims, IRNA reported.

All work at the mine will be completely halted until an investigation is completed, mining and industry minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, who was tasked with overseeing the inquiry, told IRNA.

The mine has 500 workers and the explosion happened during a change of shift, state media said.

The issue is particularly sensitive two weeks before a presidential vote in which Rouhani hopes to win re-election.

Conservative candidates have accused the government of failing to care for the poor.

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