Ukraine has observed a day of mourning after 32 miners perished in a blast in a notoriously dangerous mine, just a few kilometres from the front line where Kiev is reporting an increase in attacks by pro-Russian separatists.
Rescuers found the bodies of the miners in the Zasyadko mine, with one person unaccounted for, a day after a blast ripped through the shaft, emergency officials of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said.
Nearly half the bodies had been brought to the surface, according to the pro-Kiev administration of the Donetsk region.
“The rescue operation is still ongoing so the figure may change,” it said.
Survivors were meanwhile being treated in hospital for burns and gas poisoning.
The Zasyadko mine is located on the outskirts of rebel hub Donetsk not far from the front line of the conflict between the pro-Russian separatists and Kiev’s forces.
International monitors have reported sporadic heavy fire in the area of the Donetsk airport nearby despite the EU-mediated ceasefire struck on February 12.
Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said one soldier was killed on the front line over the past day, the sixth Ukrainian casualty since Sunday.
Donetsk region prosecutors have launched a probe into the possible violation of safety precautions at the mine, but conceded that an investigation would be impossible as the mine, though it is registered in Ukraine, is de-facto under the control of pro-Russian separatists.
Rebel prosecutors said they had launched a probe of their own.
Day of mourning for miners killed in blast
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday decreed a nationwide day of mourning for Thursday, ordering that the Ukrainian flag be flown at half-mast and cancelling entertainment events.
The parliament observed a minute’s silence at midday.
Both Ukraine and Russia have offered to help with the search for survivors but the separatist authorities claimed they had enough people and equipment.
Access to the mine was closed off by the rebels on Thursday morning and psychologists at the scene were trying to comfort two women convinced their miner husbands had died.
“We are trying to calm them down, we say that perhaps their husbands are still alive even though they don’t believe it,” Oksana, one of the psychologists, said.
Kiev and rebels both report withdrawing equipment from the front line as per the ceasefire agreement, which is being closely observed by Western countries.
On Thursday Kiev announced it was starting to pull back the notorious Grad rocket launchers as part of the next stage of the pullback spelt out in the deal struck in Minsk.
At the same time, Kiev is taking steps to prepare for a future resumption of violence, with the parliament on Thursday approving an increase of the military to 250,000 troops from the current 235,000.
Britain and other Western states are watching the state of the ceasefire for signs of another major flare-up in violence, reserving the possibility to increase sanctions against Russia and even threatening to send military aid to Ukraine.
Kiev and the West accuses Russia of being the perpetrator of the insurgency, but Moscow denies sending troops across border despite numerous accounts of Russian soldiers.