04/06/2005, 00.00
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Coal mining death toll rises by 20pc

But the government is not alarmed: corruption and negligence must be fought.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - The death toll from coal mine accidents on the mainland rose 20.8 per cent in the first quarter to 1,113, officials announced yesterday.

But Li Yizhong , minister of the State General Administration of Work Safety, took the grim figures in stride, saying the party Central Committee and State Council were dedicated to making China's mines safer.

Mr Li said his office had sent inspection teams to coal mines in 20 provinces during the past two months and closed down those that failed to meet safety standards.

However, the recent disasters took place in illegally operated mines after being shut down for failing to meet safety standards.

Mr Li said the government was cracking down on mine operators and investigating dereliction of duty among officials in charge of supervision. He said lax supervision and administration were allowing mine disasters to occur.

Mr Li's remarks came as the death toll from a coal mine disaster in Guiyang, Hunan province , last Friday climbed to nine, while eight remained missing yesterday.

Breakneck economic growth has boosted demand for energy, forcing mine operators to work deeper underground and increasing the likelihood of gas blasts.

Coal supplies 61 per cent of the mainland's energy need, and officials said there were no plans to stop relying on the fossil fuel. "Mine disasters and China's energy policy are not directly related," said Zhao Tiechui , Mr Li's deputy. Mr Li said Beijing would seek to raise safety standards and encourage conservation.

Most disasters took place in small mines operated by townships and private enterprises that accounted for only 28 per cent of the nation's coal output. Mr Li said closing some inefficient mines would not have a serious impact on overall production.

Mr Li admitted that present penalties were too light to deter violations. Under the Criminal Law, gross negligence in mining disasters is subject to a jail term of between three and seven years, while the Work Safety Law sets a maximum fine of 200,000 yuan (about 18,700 Euro).

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