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More Than 200 Workers Dead in Chinese Mine Blast

At least 203 workers are dead following a gas explosion in a mine in northeastern China - the country's worst mine disaster in the past several years. Officials reported the news of the disaster not long after issuing an extensive set of mine safety regulations.

The state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported the accident on Tuesday, one day after it happened in the Fuxin region of Liaoning province. Officials said the explosion at the Sunjiawan coal mine happened 242 meters underground and the cause was under investigation. The mine is part of a government-owned conglomerate.

The blast is the latest and worst in a spate of mine accidents that have plagued China in recent years as the economic boom pushes up the demand for coal - the country's main energy source.

In November, an explosion at a pit in northern Shaanxi province killed 166 miners. Another blast killed 148 in central Henan province in October. China's State Administration of Work Safety says the coal mine death toll reached 6,027 last year. Foreign analysts say that figure is underestimated but still ranks China as having the world's worst mine safety record.

It was only January first that new mine safety regulations containing more than 750 articles went into effect. Robin Munro with the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong group that has been monitoring Chinese mine disasters for the past decade, says the new regulations appear to have made little difference.

"Now, a few months later we're seeing the same things happening again, more colossal disasters with huge loss of life. So really, the conclusion we've got to draw is that there's no real enforcement," said Mr. Munro. "There's just lots of paper being put out by the central government."

The group says authorities have yet to take action against the owner of the Shaanxi province mine where the blast that killed 166 workers. Witnesses of that disaster allege he ordered workers to go into the shaft to put out a fire, and threatened to dismiss them if they refused.

Advocates say economic forces are a key factor in the disasters.

With a number of Chinese cities dealing with coal shortages this winter, the government has been offering cash bonuses to operators as an incentive to boost output.

Advocates say this pressure to produce more coal quickly is yet another factor driving many mine operators to neglect safety rules. Many privately owned mines reportedly ignore regulations, and in some cases, private mines have continued to operate even after government officials ordered them closed for safety reasons.