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Colombian mine blast death toll rises to 21, president says

Gustavo Petro says that despite rescue efforts, 10 miners trapped underground after an explosion have died.

The death toll from an explosion at a series of linked coal mines in central Colombia has risen to 21, President Gustavo Petro says, after large-scale rescue efforts to free 10 miners trapped underground failed.

“Unfortunately, despite all the efforts of the rescue teams, 21 people lost their lives in this tragic accident in Sutatausa,” a town 74 km north of the capital Bogota, Petro said in a tweet on Thursday morning.

“All my solidarity with their families,” the president wrote.

A day earlier, Cundinamarca Governor Nicolas Garcia told Blu Radio that at least 11 miners had been killed in the blast, which occurred late Tuesday due to a buildup of gases that exploded after a worker’s tool sparked. It spread through the affiliated, legal mines.

Nine miners were able to escape, but 10 were trapped 700 to 900 meters (2,300 to 3,000 feet) underground, Garcia told reporters Wednesday.

More than 100 rescue workers were deployed to free them.

“My thanks go to… all the rescuers who have given themselves body and soul to the rescue work in Sutatausa during these two days,” Garcia wrote Thursday morning on Twitter.

“Our hearts are broken”, he said.

People wait during search and rescue work after a mine explosion in Sutatausa, Colombia, March 15, 2023 (Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters)

Colombia is home to numerous open and underground gold and coal mines. Explosions and other incidents are common, usually in operations that are illegal or lack adequate security measures.

According to official figures, between 2011 and May 2022, the South American country has reported 1,260 mining incidents and an average of 103 deaths per year. In 2021, 148 deaths were recorded.

The most serious recent incident occurred in June 2010 when 73 people died in a mine explosion in the Northwest.

In August, nine miners were rescued from a collapsed illegal coal mine in Cundinamarca.

On Thursday, the Colombian president said: “Every work fatality is not only a business failure, but also a social and managerial failure.”