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Romania mine blast kills 13

BUCHAREST, Romania -- A methane gas explosion in a coal mine in western Romania has killed at least 13 miners and injured two others.

One of the injured miners was flown by helicopter to the western city of Timisoara for treatment of serious burns.

The explosion occurred at about 3.25 a.m. (0025 GMT) on Tuesday in the Vulcan mine in Romania's Jiu Valley coalfield, about 180 miles northwest of Bucharest.

Mine officials said it was sparked by methane gas.

"Preliminary data showed the accident was probably caused by a gas leak," Petre Marginean, deputy prefect of Hunedoara county, was quoted by Reuters.

Rescue workers had retrieved 10 bodies by midmorning.

Officials said the 13 victims were aged 20 and 43 and had 18 children between them.

Among the dead was father-of-one Paul Cozma, 29.

His distraught brother Daniel Cozma, told the Associated Press: "I can't believe it.

"I thought he was on vacation and now I hear he went down the mine."

Groups of frightened workers gathered at the pit head, refusing to enter the mine until they were told what caused the blast.

"I was terrified when I heard the news and even though I wasn't due to go underground until midday I came immediately," said Aurelian, a 35-year-old miner.

"I hope we will not enter pits until we know exactly what happened," he told Reuters.

Officials at the Hunedoara prefecture office said 16 coal miners were working at the level where the blast occurred.

A government commission headed by Interior Minister Ioan Rus has been sent to Vulcan to investigate the accident.

Officials said the two injured miners suffered massive burns and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Miners' unions often complain about difficult conditions, including poor ventilation and obsolete equipment.

It was the country's worst mining accident since 1989, when an explosion killed 29 miners at the coal mine. Three years earlier 57 miners died in a similar incident.

Jiu Valley miners once had the power to topple governments, marching on Bucharest in 1991 to stage bloody riots that ousted reformers and installed ex-communists in their place.

But since a lengthy strike in 1997 and another march on the capital in 1999 that was halted by police action the ability of miners to shake Romania has been diminished by job losses, restructuring and government determination to face them down.

• Romanian Government

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