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Explosion at Turkish coal mine

An explosion and fire at a coal mine in western Turkey killed at least five people Tuesday and trapped hundreds of workers underground, officials said. A massive rescue operation began, saving at least 25 people.

A power distribution unit at a mine in the town of Soma exploded Tuesday afternoon, Soma administrator Mehmet Bahattin Atci told reporters. The town is 250 kilometres (155 miles) south of Istanbul.

Atci said the blast trapped between 200 to 300 workers inside the mine. Other officials said the accident occurred during a shift change at the mine and the exact number of workers trapped was not known.

The death toll stood at five and at least 25 people were evacuated alive, said Cengiz Ergun, the leader of Manisa province, where the town is located.

"Evacuation efforts are underway. I hope that we are able to rescue them," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised comments.

Rescuers were pumping fresh air into the mine and rescue teams from neighbouring regions rushed to the area, said Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, who went immediately to Soma to oversee the rescue operation.

"It is a serious accident," he told reporters. "Our priority is to reach our miner brothers."

Ergun said the rescue effort was being hampered by the fact that the mine was made up of tunnels that were kilometres (miles) long.

"The situation inside is troubling," Ergun told NTV television.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the mine and the hospital in Soma, seeking news of their loved ones.

SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., which owns the mine, confirmed that a number of its workers were killed but would not give a specific figure. It said the accident occurred despite the "highest safety measures and constant controls" and added that an investigation was being launched.

"Our main priority is to get our workers out so that they may be reunited with their loved ones," the company said in a statement.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.

Turkey's worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

The Canadian Press

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