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Tensions rise as Chinese miners' relatives await word

A fracas erupts outside one of two flooded sites; 181 are still missing.

August 20, 2007|From the Associated Press

xintai, china -- Distressed family members shouted and scuffled with guards after a third day without word on 172 miners trapped in a flooded mine in eastern China.

Paramilitary police and emergency crews plugged a breach in a dike that burst Friday after heavy rains, flooding the Huayuan Mining Co. operation, officials and state media said. Industrial pumps began removing water that had stood 65 feet deep in the shaft, as experts analyzed accident data to try to locate the missing miners, a provincial official said.

"There's some hope, and we will expend 100%, 1,000%, of effort to carry out the search and rescue," said Zhang Dekuan, spokesman for the government of Shandong province.

In contrast to the blanket coverage in the U.S. of rescue efforts for six miners in Utah, accounts in China's wholly state-owned media have been terse. Reports Sunday focused on the successful mending of the breach, but said little about the trapped miners, a sign that the government remains nervous about public anger.

Despite Zhang's media briefing in a local hotel, no officials or mining company executives emerged from Huayuan's sprawling, gated compound to talk to the miners' waiting, anxious relatives. No list of the missing had been issued, they said.

"They are treating these people like they are things to be sacrificed," said Li Chunmei, whose 42-year-old brother was believed to be trapped in the 600-yard shaft. "You would think an official could come and tell us what's going on, whether there are any signs of life, are they dead or alive."

Dozens of relatives -- sobbing mothers and children among them -- shouted, "Why don't you come out!" at officials who stood with police and security guards behind the gate. At one point, the crowd surged, bending the metal gate and setting off a fracas of shoving. Later, a middle-aged woman broke through, only to be wrestled away by two guards in camouflage.

If the Huayuan miners are dead, the accident would be among the worst of its kind in 58 years of communist rule, second to an explosion that killed 214 miners in the northeast in 2005.

Nine more miners remained unaccounted for in a nearby mine that also flooded, bringing the total number of missing to 181.

China's mines are woefully dangerous: Last year, an average of 13 miners died every day. The toll has become a blot for the communist leadership, which has called for improved safety in an economy that depends on coal for two-thirds of its energy.

Zhang Qingmei, whose brother-in-law was missing Sunday, said, "The officials say 'safety first, production second,' but they have not followed those instructions."

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