But they may have to wait a little longer. Serhi Ermilov said on Wednesday the arrears would be paid to miners by December 2004, the news agency Interfax reported.

The miners, who work in dangerous conditions and earn less than $150 a month, would also eventually receive a pay rise, the minister was reported as saying.

Ukraine's Labour minister simultaneously announced five judicial inquiries to look into violations concerning the payment of salaries to miners, the agency said.

Nearly 20,000 angry miners went on strike across the country in March to protest against unpaid arrears, poor working conditions and a government policy aimed at closing down non-profitable mines.

Pay arrears total 1.8 billion hryvnas ($385 million), according to the country's labour unions.

Deep trouble

Ukraine's mining industry has suffered a crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With state subsidies decreasing every year, miners are forced to work with obsolete and often defective equipment.

About 200 miners died in accidents last year, often due to gas explosions or the collapse of shafts.

Some 400,000 people work in Ukraine's 172 mines, most of which are located in the country's eastern Donbass region. The country estimates that it will extract 84 million tonnes of coal next year.

Ukraine has launched a restructuring program with the World Bank, which should see half of the country's mines closed down over the next five years. Fifty-six mines were closed last year, according to the energy ministry.