Rescuers fear 13 workers trapped in a coal mine that caught fire in northeast China are dead, after the owner initially claimed they were safe, delaying efforts to find them, state media said on Sunday.
The owner allegedly told authorities that no one was missing late on Wednesday after the fire started in the mine near Hegang city in Heilongjiang province, the Xinhua news agency reported.
It was not until Friday that local officials received a tip-off that 13 workers remained trapped inside the privately-run Taiyuan Coal Mine, according to the agency.
Rescue workers, attempting to put out the fire as well as save the miners, could be seen at the mouth of the mine late on Saturday, their faces covered by masks to protect against fumes, Xinhua said.
"Dense toxic gases prevented rescue workers from entering the mine," Xinhua said. "There is little hope for the 13 trapped miners."
The rescuers were also hampered by a lack of proper equipment after they used up all available fire extinguishers, forcing them to simply pump water into the mine to try to put out the blaze, according to the agency.
Nearly 3,800 lives were lost in Chinese coal mines last year, down 20 percent from the year before, according to government figures.
However, many independent labour groups suspect the actual death toll is much higher, saying many accidents are covered up to prevent costly shutdowns and legal action.
China, which relies heavily on coal for its energy needs, recently launched a campaign to close illegal and unsafe mines to stem the disasters, and authorities have said thousands of such mines have been shut.
But the government plans to let more than 10,000 coal mines that were closed recently to reopen due to an energy shortage caused by the recent winter weather crisis, state press said on Thursday.