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Serbia Mourns 29 Mine Blast Victims

January 17, 1998

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Angry over an explosion that killed 29 coal miners in Serbia, a local mayor criticized federal officials Saturday for ignoring primitive and unsafe conditions in the country’s mines.

The powerful blast ripped through a state-run mine Friday night in Sokobanja, about 110 miles south of the capital, Belgrade. Nineteen miners also were injured in the explosion, while dozens were forced to crawl to safety through suffocating smoke and dust.

``All we heard was a loud boom and then a force swept me away,″ Belgrade’s BK television quoted miner Ljubinko Jovanovic as saying from his hospital bed. ``When I came to, I was still choking.″

The Serbian Interior Ministry announced that it had issued arrest warrants for four mining officials on charges they had committed ``acts against public safety.″ It did not, however, reveal any findings so far from an investigation into the explosion.

Zoran Zivkovic, the mayor of southern Serbia’s largest town, Nis, accused the federal government of negligence.

``The miners have had no option but to pay for this with the highest price _ their lives,″ he told The Associated Press.

Sokobanja miners _ many of whom were among the 76 caught underground by the blast _ went on strike last year to protest outdated equipment and poor working conditions, Zivkovic said. He added that a mine technician had been sacked shortly after warning of potential accidents.

The state-run news agency Tanjug reported that the explosion was caused by a gust of methane, a naturally occurring colorless and odorless gas that seeps out of coal seams. Methane can build up easily in poorly ventilated mine shafts and a spark can ignite it.

The burst of gas caught fire 80 yards underground, overwhelming the group of miners working the nightshift.

All coal mines are legally obligated to have methane-signaling equipment and alarm systems, said Mile Paripovic, a mining engineer from eastern Serbia’s Bor copper mine.

Svetozar Krstic, a Serbian state official, was quoted by Belgrade Radio as saying that one of the most sophisticated detection devices available had been installed in the Sokobanja mine last year.

Rescue teams pulled out the 19 injured by midnight, while 28 miners, uninjured and close to the exit, were able to scramble out on their own. No one was injured seriously.

``A huge cloud of dust blocked our way,″ miner Ivica Alkovic told Yugoslav state television, his voice trembling as he recalled the panic. ``I couldn’t help any of my mates, although I tried.″

Sokobanja, a town of 8,500 residents, is surrounded by one of the heaviest mining regions in southern Serbia. Like others in the nation, its mine has old equipment, scant safety measures and almost medieval working conditions.

A total of 20 miners were killed in methane gas explosions in Sokobanja in 1974 and 1975. In the nearby town of Aleksinac, two mining accidents in the 1980s killed a total of 125 people.

The Yugoslav government met in emergency session Saturday and decided to send financial aid to the grieving families.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic sent condolences to the families of those killed Friday and dispatched Serbia’s deputy prime minister, Svetozar Krstic, to the site. The Serbian government declared Saturday a day of mourning.

Update hourly