Nearly two dozen people have been confirmed dead in a Chinese coal mine blast, three days after they were trapped underground following an explosion, state media say.
The blast, whose cause still remains unknown, occurred at a private mine in Qitaihe city in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang late on Tuesday, trapping 22 miners, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported on Saturday, adding that provincial authorities had pronounced 21 miners dead late on Friday.
The report further said that rescue operations were underway to reach the sole survivor of the deadly incident.
According to an earlier report, rescue teams had failed to reach the victims because debris from the blast had blocked the tunnels leading to the site.
China is the world's largest producer and consumer of coal, yet mine accidents are common in the country in spite of efforts to improve safety for workers. Beijing is struggling to pass strict safety regulations in the mining sector.
On Friday, Song Yuanming, the deputy director of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, warned that collieries should not operate beyond capacity and their managers should not call for miners’ overtime work, otherwise mines would become prone to accidents.
Song also ordered the mining industry to carry out a safety overhaul to prevent tragic accidents like the one that claimed the lives of 33 miners in a gas explosion at the privately-owned Jinshangou coal mine in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing in November.
In September, at least 18 other miners lost their lives in a mine explosion in the northwestern Ningxia region.
In January, four miners were rescued from a collapsed gypsum mine in Shandong province after 36 days of being trapped underground. The mine's owner took his life shortly after the accident.
According to official figures, the annual toll of mine accidents has fallen significantly in the past decade to fewer than 1,000 a year. However, some rights groups cast doubts on the stats, saying the actual figures are quite higher.
Authorities are further concerned over miners’ safety as the country is mounting its coal production to meet winter demand.