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China Coal Mine Deaths Drop Sharply, but Corruption Slows Safety Work

China's work safety watchdog says the number of deaths from coal mine accidents, the highest in the world, declined dramatically this year following the closing of thousands of illegal and unsafe mines. But Chinese officials say collusion between local officials and mine owners is still a big obstacle to improving coal mine safety. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

China's State Administration of Work Safety said Thursday that the death toll from coal mine accidents is down nearly 24 percent so far this year.

The administration says there have been about 4,800 mine deaths in 2006, compared with almost 6,000 last year.

Li Yizhong is director of the Administration of Work Safety. He says the closure of thousands of illegal, unsafe and small coal mines is responsible for the bulk of the drop in accidents and deaths. But he said corruption is still preventing safety regulations from being fully enforced.

"We find some government departments were derelict in their duties, exchanged favors for money, colluded with business owners, and there was corruption behind the accidents," Li said.

China is generally considered to have the most dangerous coal mines in the world. Safety laws have been passed, but local officials are often reported to ignore them in their rush to supply coal for China's booming economy. Quite often, the officials have an ownership stake in the mines, and share in the profits.

Li said 45 local officials have been fired and 117 punished over the past year for corruption and other offenses in relation to 11 major industrial accidents. Many of those accidents involved mine safety.

The government says it closed nearly 6,000 mines in 2005, and predicts that it will have closed another 5,000 during this year and next.

Li said one way of cutting down on mine-related corruption would be to help local officials solve the problems that closing mines causes to their economies and employment situations.

Chinese officials are often evaluated on the basis of their districts' economic growth, which in some regions is based largely on coal mining.

Li said evaluations should be based on work safety performance as well.