* Emergencies Ministry blames methane for blast
* Putin sends minister to scene
* Russia has long history of mine disasters
By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW, Feb 11 An underground methane gas
explosion killed up to 18 miners at a coal pit in northern
Russia on Monday and President Vladimir Putin dispatched his
disasters minister to the scene to oversee rescue efforts.
Rescue workers said they had brought 10 bodies to the
surface at the Vorkutinskaya mine, owned by large Russian steel
company Severstal, in the icy Komi region and were
trying to recover eight other corpses.
About 250 people had been at the pit at the time of the
blast, about 800 metres (2,600 feet) below the surface but most
had escaped or been rescued, government officials said.
Although mine safety has improved since the Soviet Union
collapsed in 1991, fatal accidents are frequent in Russia's
ageing pits. Most accidents have been attributed to methane
blasts, negligence or a failure to follow safety regulations.
"We need a clear and understandable picture of what
happened," Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov told local
officials and rescue workers via a video link-up soon after the
Putin sent his condolences and ordered Puchkov to travel in
person to Komi, about 1,200 km (750 miles) northeast of Moscow,
to oversee the rescue, cleanup and help the victims' families.
The Emergencies Ministry and Severstal said 16 miners had
been killed and the fate of two others was unknown. Three people
were taken to hospital after the blast, the company said.
"I need a clear report on the injured, the condition of
their health and what kind of necessary specialised medical help
they need. We are sending the appropriate experts from Moscow,"
Puchkov told officials.
Itar-Tass quoted him as saying each victim's family would be
paid 2 million roubles ($66,400) in compensation.
Russia's federal Investigative Committee opened an
investigation to check whether there had been safety violations
at the Vorkutinskaya mine, which began production in 1973.
A major mine blast killed 110 people in the coal-mining
region of Kemerevo in 2007 and another explosion in the same
region in 2010 killed more than 60.
The Vorkutinskaya explosion caused the shares of mine owner
Severstal to fall 2.2 per cent in Moscow, though the blast,
which affected only one of the mine's walls, is not expected to
greatly affect output of approximately 1 million tonnes a year.
Putin's decision to dispatch a minister to the region, which
was part of the Gulag network of prison camps under Soviet
dictator Josef Stalin, appeared aimed at critics who say he
failed to respond quickly enough to previous disasters.
The Kremlin chief, who first rose to power 13 years ago, has
seen his ratings fall following major street protests against
his rule and his opponents say that Russia faces economic and
political stagnation under Putin's continued rule.