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Hopes Fade for Trapped Miners in China

Officials in northern China say hopes of finding more survivors of Sunday's mine blast are fading. Twenty-five bodies have been recovered and rescue workers on Monday battled thick smoke while trying to reach 141 workers trapped eight kilometers from the mine entrance in Shaanxi Province.

State-run newspapers in the Chinese capital Monday featured the accident prominently and articles strongly criticized poor safety at the government-run Chenjiashan coal mine in Shaanxi Province.

International labor experts rate China's coal mines as the world's deadliest, with official figures showing more than 4,000 workers killed in the last year alone - roughly 80 percent of all mine fatalities around the world. International experts say the real figure in China could be much higher considering the number illegal mines that operate.

President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have vowed to work to improve worker safety at mines. Speaking to reporters at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Laos, Mr. Wen said the government is taking the latest disaster seriously.

Mr. Wen said the government must investigate the cause of the explosion, assume responsibility, and strengthen safety measures to prevent a reoccurrence.

Coal is the fuel of choice in China. Demand is high due to the economic boom and the onset of winter has driven up the need even further - forcing coal mines to work day and night to meet orders.

Han Dong Fang directs the China Labor Bulletin, a workers' advocacy group in Hong Kong. He says the rush to fill energy supplies has pushed many mine operators to overlook basic safety regulations that the government has already put in place.

"The market is so powerful, it doesn't matter how much the government keeps saying how much they are aware of the health and safety issue," said Han Dong Fang. "It doesn't matter how many people the government is sending to prison after one explosion or another. It's a market driven situation."

Government-run newspapers say a fire had broken out at the mine a week ago. Reports said some workers had refused to go back to the mine but did so after the mine's operators threatened to fine or suspend those who did not return to work.