MANAGUA (AFP) - Rescue teams in Nicaragua were scrambling frantically Friday to reach at least 20 workers trapped deep underground for more than 24 hours after a cave-in at an unlicensed gold mine.
Two workers buried near the surface managed to dig their way out after the collapse early Thursday in the remote village of El Comal in northeastern Nicaragua, according to the local disaster prevention committee.
But another 20 are marooned in the mine shaft 800m underground, said presidential spokeswoman Rosario Murillo, after being briefed by officials coordinating the desperate rescue effort.
There had been 28 "guiriseros," or informal gold miners, working in the shaft when the mouth of the mine caved in because of a landslide triggered by heavy downpours.
Authorities said they were trying to confirm whether any miners had died, noting that the incident happened in a hard-to-reach area with poor communication.
"Supposedly there are dead but that is not confirmed," said local disaster official Martha Lagos.
A local TV station had showed what appeared to be the body of a dead miner being recovered.
Police, soldiers and other miners were taking part in the operation, using rescue dogs to help locate the victims.
"You can hear that there are people alive because we heard voices," Lagos earlier told the website 19 Digital.
The accident happened at an artisanal mine near the town of Bonanza, which is perched on the side of a hill, in a region that is home to Nicaragua's biggest gold mines.
Desperate relatives initially tried to dig through to the trapped miners but the land was too unstable, news reports said.
Word of the collapse only emerged late Thursday because the site is so remote, Lagos said.
President Daniel Ortega "is following the rescue operation" and has suspended an event Saturday to inaugurate a new bridge, his spokeswoman said.
Business has boomed over the past decade for Nicaragua's "guiriseros" as the price of gold has risen from less than US$400 an ounce to more than US$1,200 (S$1,500).
They descend into old shafts that have been abandoned by conventional mining companies and look for remaining gold or dig even deeper to find new veins.
But the work can be perilous.
The scene of Thursday's collapse "is very high-risk and only they know the site because as the superficial veins of gold run out, they have to dig deeper and deeper in underground tunnels," said Lagos.
Informal gold mining is the main source of employment in Bonanza, where officials estimate there are 6,000 "guiriseros."
Many of them have migrated there from other parts of the country in a modern-day gold rush.
Bonanza's population has jumped in the past decade from around 8,000 people to 40,000, said Lagos.
Locals can earn US$1,500 to US$3,000 a month selling gold to foreign mining companies - a relative fortune in Nicaragua.
Some informal miners work independently, while others are organized into officially authorized cooperatives.
Bonanza forms one point of the Central American country's so-called "mining triangle" in the remote Autonomous North Atlantic Region.
The latest accident comes four years after 33 workers were trapped deep inside Chile's San Jose copper and gold mine for more than two months, a drama that captured worldwide attention.
It took rescuers 17 days to drill a small shaft to establish contact, and more than two months of painstaking effort to open a passage wide enough to pull them out one by one.