He said the bodies of 107 people had been recovered so far at the Ulyanovskaya mine, located about 3,000km east of Moscow.
 
Search 'difficult'
 
On Tuesday, Sergei Shoigu, Russia's emergencies minister who was dispatched by Putin to oversee rescue operations, said: "We're hoping to find more people alive."

 

However, early on Wednesday he admitted that the search could take up to three days more, the Interfax news agency reported.

 

"Practically the whole of the management of the company died in the accident"

Aman Tuleyev, governor of Kemerovo
"The search is very difficult," said Sergei Cheremnov, a spokesman for the governor of the region of Kemerovo, Russia's coal industry heartland where the mine is located, explaining that "there is bad ventilation, there is flooding and there was a lot of destruction".

 

Officials said that rescuers were working underground by hand and that divers were working in flooded sections of the mine.

 

Search and rescue operations were being conducted under tight security. About 30 special operations riot police backed by regular local officers were posted around the facility.

 

Accidents in Russia's mines are frequent but the Ulyanovskaya complex was opened only in 2002 and inaugurated on the 50th birthday of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

 

The mine was said by officials to be equipped with some of the most modern safety equipment available and was a showpiece for an initial public stock offering (IPO) planned for this year.

 

Modern mine

 

Prosecutors have opened a criminal inquiry into violation of safety rules at the mine, which is operated by the firm Yuzhkuzbassugol that owns several other mines in the region.

 

Yuzhkuzbassugol is a subsidiary of Russian metals giant Evraz.

 

The methane explosion occurred as most of the mine's managers were underground accompanying a visiting British auditor reported to be inspecting the facility in connection with the planned flotation.
 

Authorities said victims' families would
be compensated [Reuters]
Aman Tuleyev, governor of Kemerovo, said: "Practically the whole of the management of the company died in the accident."

 

He said 20 members of the mine's management team were killed in the explosion and ensuing fire, including the facility's chief engineer and chief mechanic. Tuleyev said the mine's director was spared as he was on holiday.

 

British mining consultancy IMC confirmed that one of its employees, Ian Robertson, was in the mine at the time of the blast but could not comment on what had happened to him.

 

Fradkov called for tougher safety rules at coal mines. The Kommersant daily said it was Russia's worst mining accident since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

 

Russian miners say safety rules are frequently broken in coal mines, some of which date from Josef Stalin's mass industrialisation drive in the late 1920s or even earlier.

 

On December 2, 1997, 67 miners were killed by a methane gas explosion, in a mine in the same region. Five weeks after that incident, 27 miners died in an explosion in Vorkuta in northern Russia.

 

Local authorities said each victim's family would receive compensation of about $37,000.