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172 Chinese miners trapped underground by flood

Latest in string of coal disasters

BEIJING -- Flooding set off by torrential rains trapped 172 men deep underground in a coal mine in eastern China, the government's New China News Agency reported today.

Zhang Dekuan, a senior Shandong province official, told the agency that 756 miners were working in the shaft when floodwaters rushed inside about 2:30 p.m. yesterday and cut off their exit route. Rescuers freed 584 of them during the evening, he said, but 172 remained trapped early today.

The miners' chances of survival were uncertain, and officials did not disclose whether rescuers had established communication with them. In a similar drama two weeks ago, miners trapped for several days emerged after rescuers dug through mud to set them free.

The accident yesterday was the latest in a string of disasters afflicting China's coal industry, which is booming to meet the energy demands of a swiftly expanding economy. More than 2,800 miners were killed in underground explosions and floodings in 2006, according to government statistics, making the country's mines the most dangerous in the world.

The mine flood came four days after more than 40 workers were killed when a bridge under construction collapsed at Fenghuang in Hunan province. According to reports from the scene, the bridge was being built without steel reinforcement rods because local officials wanted to follow traditional stone-and-concrete methods in deference to the site's role as a tourist attraction.

As is often the case in China, journalists were impeded from providing full coverage of the bridge disaster, prompting suspicions that local officials might have allowed shoddy construction materials to be used in return for bribes. The Communist Party government has become concerned over its image in recent months as it prepares for a crucial party congress in the fall.

News from the Shandong mining accident also seemed closely managed. Many of China's fatal mine accidents occur in illegal mines whose owners operate day and night without adequate safety precautions, bribing local officials to look the other way. This has become an embarrassment for President Hu Jintao's government.