Rescued Nicaragua miners join hunt for missing comrades

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20 freed from mine in Nicaragua

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Bonanza (Nicaragua) (AFP) - Twenty workers dramatically rescued from a collapsed Nicaraguan gold mine joined frantic efforts to find eight comrades still missing after the cave-in, officials said Saturday.

The rescued men were hauled out of the unlicensed gold mine one-by-one late Friday after being buried in a collapse at the unlicensed pit a day earlier.

After speaking with relatives of the trapped miners, officials reported at first that five were still trapped.

They later determined that three more miners -- who did not have relatives in the area to report their disappearance to officials -- had failed to return from the mine after the mishap.

After being treated in hospital overnight, several of the men were discharged Saturday and swiftly joined efforts to locate nine men still feared trapped.

"The boys spent the night under observation in the hospital, where they were treated for dehydration," said Gregorio Rocha, a spokesman for the mining company HEMCO which is involved in rescue efforts.

"The hospital treatment gave them the energy and some are now working to find the missing," he told AFP.

Rocha described the rescue of the 20 workers on Friday as a "great achievement," although he lamented that they have failed so far to rescue the others.

The workers were evacuated from the collapsed mine using a pulley system.

An AFP photographer at the scene described the survivors as "exhausted, dehydrated, muddy and dirty."

They were immediately embraced by family members and taken to the nearest hospital.

Pictures from the scene showed some of the miners, wrapped in blankets, lying on stretchers or the backs of trucks surrounded by ecstatic loved ones.

The accident happened at a 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.

The mine caved in because of a landslide triggered by heavy downpours, early Thursday morning.

Word of the collapse only emerged late Thursday because the site is so remote, local disaster official Martha Lagos said.

Two workers buried near the surface quickly managed to dig their way out after the collapse in the remote village of El Comal in northeastern Nicaragua, according to the local disaster prevention committee.

The miners -- trapped in the mine shaft 800 meters (2,600 feet) underground -- could be heard screaming for help from under the rubble, said Omar Medina, a miner who helped with the rescue efforts.

"We heard the echo of their cries and answered," he said.

The eight still missing may have fallen into a deep pit, said local authorities, explaining the rescue efforts were complex because the mine had been abandoned by companies and was being exploited anew by independent miners.

- Modern gold rush -

Business has boomed over the past decade for Nicaragua's "guiriseros" as the price of gold has risen from less than $400 an ounce to more than $1,200.

They descend into old shafts and look for remaining gold -- or dig even deeper to find new veins.

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 to 40,000, according to a regional official.

Locals can earn $1,500 to $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.

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