Death toll in Russia mine accident rises to 36

 Rescue workers preparing for rescue operations at the Severnaya coal mine in Vorkuta, Russia, on Feb 26, 2016.
Rescue workers preparing for rescue operations at the Severnaya coal mine in Vorkuta, Russia, on Feb 26, 2016. PHOTO: EPA/VORKUTAUGOL PRESS SERVICE

MOSCOW (AFP) - The death toll in Russia's worst mining disaster in recent history climbed to 36 on Sunday as officials said 26 missing workers had not survived and another six, most of them rescuers, had been killed in a new explosion.

On Thursday, four miners were killed when a methane explosion ripped through the Severnaya mine in Arctic Russia at a depth of 748 metres.

Ms Tatyana Bushkova, a spokesman for the mine's operator Vorkutaugol, told AFP in an e-mailed statement on Sunday that "according to the expert technical council, 26 (missing) people who were in the mine had no chances of surviving".

"The rescue operation has been halted," she said.

A fresh methane explosion at the mine early Sunday killed five rescue workers and a miner, Anton Kovalishin, a spokesman for the emergencies ministry in the Komi region where the mine is located, told AFP.

The accident at the Severnaya mine appears to be Russia's worst mining accident over the past few years.

The pit is located in the city of Vorkuta in the Komi region, which used to host one of the most feared Soviet-era Gulag labour camps.

Vorkutaugol is operated by Severstal, the Russian steelmaker controlled by billionaire Alexey Mordashov.

Authorities launched a massive search operation involving hundreds of rescue workers who had been trying to track down the missing miners despite almost zero visibility, smoke, gas-polluted air and rubble.

But earlier on Sunday, Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov said that the 26 could not have survived.

"Unfortunately, we are forced to acknowledge that all the conditions at that section of the mine would not allow a person to survive," he said in remarks broadcast by LifeNews television channel.

Both the company and authorities had until now refused to declare the missing dead even though rescuers appear to have failed to make contact with them over the past few days.

President Vladimir Putin has tasked the government with creating a special commission to investigate the accident.

In 2010, 91 people - both miners and rescuers - died after a methane explosion at the Raspadskaya mine in the Siberian region of Kemerovo.

In 2007, 110 people died at the Ulyanovskaya mine in the Kemerovo region, the country's worst mining accident since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.