MOSCOW - At least 14 people were killed in a Russian coal mine in Siberia on Thursday, including three rescuers who were sent down to try to bring out dozens still missing.
At least 11 miners died in the initial accident, when coal dust ignited in a ventilation shaft in the Listvyazhnaya mine in the snowbound Kemerovo region, filling the mine with smoke, the TASS news agency cited local emergency services as saying.
It quoted the acting head of the Emergencies Ministry as saying three rescuers had also been killed.
With methane levels in the mine dangerously high, an operation to rescue 35 people stuck underground had to be halted, regional governor Sergei Tsivilev said. Three rescuers were also reported missing.
'The chance of an explosion is very high. We've decided to suspend the search and rescue operation until the concentration of gas reduces,' Tsivilev said.
Dozens of people were being treated in hospital, at least some of them for smoke poisoning. Four were in critical condition.
The coal-producing region of Kemerovo, roughly 3,500 km (2,175 miles) east of Moscow, has suffered fatal mining accidents for years.
The Listvyazhnaya mine is part of SDS-Holding, owned by the privately held Siberian Business Union. The owner had no immediate comment.
Before the rescue operation was halted, the governor said there was still electricity and ventilation in the mine, but that contact had been lost with some of those deep underground.
'For now there is no heavy smoke, so we hope that there is no fire,' Tsivilev said on social media. 'We have no communication lines with these people, the underground communications system is not working.'
Some 285 people were inside the mine when smoke spread through the ventilation shaft, the Emergencies Ministry said. .
Authorities said at least 239 had made it to the surface.
On state television, President Vladimir Putin said he had spoken with the governor and emergency officials. .
'Unfortunately the situation is not getting easier. And there's a danger to the lives of the rescuers,' he said. 'We'll hope they can save as many people as they can.'
The Kremlin said Putin had ordered the emergencies minister to fly to the region to help.
Kemerovo declared a three-day period of mourning.
In 2007, the region was the site of the worst mining .accident since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when an explosion at the Ulyanovskaya mine claimed the lives of more than 100 people.
In 2010, explosions at the region's Raspadskaya mine killed more than 90 people.
The regional branch of the Investigative Committee law enforcement agency said it had opened a criminal case into negligence causing loss of life.