An explosion and a fire has killed at least 17 workers at a coal mine in western Turkey and trapped hundreds of others underground, the country's disaster agency said as it launched a massive rescue operation.

It was not immediately clear how many more miners were still trapped in the coal mine in the town of Soma, some 250km south of Istanbul.

Authorities said Tuesday's disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power distribution center.

A government official told The Associated Press that the death toll was expected to rise further, with unconfirmed reports citing the town's major putting the death toll as high as 70, with up to 300 men still trapped in the mine.

In televised comments, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said "evacuation efforts are under way. I hope that we are able to rescue them".

The rescue effort was being hampered by the fact that the mine was made up of tunnels that were kilometers long, Cengiz Ergun, the mayor of Manisa province said.

The accident which was being blamed on an electrical fault, trapped the miners some two kilometres below the surface and four kilometres from the entrance.

Al Jazeera's Serpil Karacan, reporting from Istanbul, said the mine employed more than 500 people.

Rescuers were pumping fresh air into the mine and rescue teams from neighboring regions had rushed to the area, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told the Associated Press news agency.

"It is a serious accident," he told reporters. "Our priority is to reach our miner brothers."

Accidents are common in Turkey's mining industry, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.

Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 270 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies