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Rescuers work to try and determine how many miners are trapped inside a collapsed shaft at a coal mine, after an accident that killed at least eight miners, according to RTS state television, in Sokobanja, southern Serbia, on April 1.ANTONIO BRONIC/Reuters

Eight miners were killed and 18 injured on Friday when a shaft collapsed at a state-owned coal mine in southern Serbia.

The Mining and Energy ministry said the accident at the Soko mine, about 250 kilometres south of Belgrade, happened when coal collapsed in an excavation chamber, leading to “a sudden penetration of methane into the working space.”

There were 49 miners on the rota at the time of the accident, most of them from the nearby town of Aleksinac.

None of the injured miners, suffering fractures and the effects of gas inhalation, was in a life-threatening condition, health authorities said.

At the site, miners were seen milling behind the gate as vans took away bodies, a Reuters witness said. Police patrols were in the area.

In a statement, the ministry quoted mine director Drago Milinkovic as saying security measures were in place at the time of the accident.

“There was a sudden release of methane and there was nothing we could do,” the statement said.

Zorana Mihajlovic, the outgoing mining and energy minister, said police and other relevant bodies had launched an investigation.

“In the early morning hours at 4.10 am they (the miners) got suffocated … the increase of methane (gas levels) was so high, that they got suffocated,” she told Reuters.

The so-called Aleksinac coal mining area is prone to methane saturation and in 1998 27 miners died in an explosion in the Soko mine. In November 1989, 90 miners died in a fire in a mine close to the nearby town of Aleksinac.

Serbia produces two thirds of its electric power in ageing and polluting coal-fired plants. In 2020, the country produced around 43.4 million short tons of coal, mainly from open pits.

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