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Riot Police Break Up Miners' Protest

APCoal miners and their families clashing with riot police in Mezhdurechensk, in the Kemerovo region, late Friday.

OMON riot police were called in to disperse coal miners and their families who had blocked a Siberian railway line to protest a pair of mine explosions that killed at least 66 people.

Television footage showed dozens of people holding candles in the dark in the town of Mezhdurechensk before the riot police moved in late Friday.

Men, most of them young, began pelting the policemen with stones, while others were dragged off and arrested.

Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev said the protest was the work of young people and "bandits."

"The young people had been purposefully stirred up," Tuleyev said, Interfax reported.

Police said 28 people were arrested and could be charged with blocking the railway.

The protest was reminiscent of last summer's demonstrations in the cement-making town of Pikalyovo, where hundreds of workers blocked a highway in protest over job cuts and unpaid wages.

That protest led to direct intervention by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Shortly afterward, President Dmitry Medvedev warned governors that they would be fired if they were unable to control such protests.

Tuleyev met with Raspadskaya miners on Saturday. He said workers would continue to be paid while the Raspadskaya mine was closed, and that a full investigation would be carried out into the cause of the May 8 accident.

Separate footage from Mezhdurechensk's Kvant television showed hundreds of protesters standing outside a cultural center Friday, demanding improved wages and working conditions.

"The main thing is that none of the managers came to ask for forgiveness, not one of them," a protester told the broadcaster.

Search operations for 24 missing miners and rescue workers were suspended Thursday because of high methane gas levels in the mine.

Emergency Situations Ministry official Pavel Plat said Friday that the methane could not be reduced to safe levels for at least a week. "We simply can't let people remain in the kind of situation that has developed" in the mine, he said.

The confirmed death toll of 66 includes 17 rescuers who were sent into the mine after the first explosion and were caught in the second blast, which was so enormous that it severely damaged buildings on the surface.

There have been no reports of contact established with any of the 24 missing miners, who were believed to be about 450 meters underground.

Both blasts were blamed on methane, but it's not clear what set them off.

Governor Tuleyev said Friday that one of the 66 people killed in the explosion was a fired mine employee whose body was found with two knives and a roll of copper wire. The man was believed to have been stealing metal items from the mine, Tuleyev said.

The disaster was the deadliest since 110 people were killed by a methane blast at another mine in the coal-rich Kemerovo region in March 2007.

The Raspadskaya mine accounts for about 10 percent of Russia's annual coking coal output.

(Reuters, AP)

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