Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) The death toll from explosions that ripped through two illegal coal mines in the northern Chinese province Shanxi rose to 60. Another 9 people are missing.
The first gas blast occurred at the Xishui mine in the city of Shuozhou on March 19. It was so powerful that it blew through a safety partition wall and into the adjacent Kangjiayao mine.
Overall 71 people were working in the two mines; only two came out alive.
According to China's state-owned news agency Xinhua, the six teams involved in the rescue operation were the "most excellent rescue forces" ever mobilised in the province.
Official sources confirm that the authorities had ordered the closure of the Xishui mining complex in November 2004 after discovering several safety problems. The mine owners, who disregarded the order, are now under arrest.
A compensation plan has been prepared, with the families of each victim set to receive 200,000 yuan ( 18,000, US$ 24,000), a figure that is among the highest yet offered on the mainland.
Incidents like the ones in the Xishui mine are becoming commonplace. The authorities confirmed in fact that another 19 miners died on Thursday at the Sulongsi mine in Fengjie county.
These deaths are the price China is paying for its extraordinary economic growth and rising energy needs. Although official figures show that more than 6,000 people died in mining accidents last year, independent sources claim that the real death toll in China's coal mines could be as high as 20,000.
Even if official sources are accepted, China's mortality figures constituted 80 per cent of all mining deaths in the world last year, 80 times those of South Africa, 100 times those of the United States, this despite the fact that Chinese coal output is only one third of world coal production.
Demand for energy is so great that companies and the government are reopening abandoned mines without implementing the necessary safety measures.
Miners are induced to work up to 14 hours per day to extract just one tonne of coal per person per day. By comparison, US miners are able to mine 40 tonnes.