By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW (Reuters) - An underground methane gas explosion killed up to 18 miners at a coal pit in northern Russia on Monday and President Vladimir Putin dispatched his disasters minister to the scene to oversee rescue efforts.
Rescue workers said they had brought 10 bodies to the surface at the Vorkutinskaya mine, owned by large Russian steel company Severstal, in the icy Komi region and were trying to recover eight other corpses.
About 250 people had been at the pit at the time of the blast, about 800 meters (2,600 feet) below the surface but most had escaped or been rescued, government officials said.
Although mine safety has improved since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, fatal accidents are frequent in Russia's ageing pits. Most accidents have been attributed to methane blasts, negligence or a failure to follow safety regulations.
"We need a clear and understandable picture of what happened," Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov told local officials and rescue workers via a video link-up soon after the explosion.
Putin sent his condolences and ordered Puchkov to travel in person to Komi, about 1,200 km (750 miles) northeast of Moscow, to oversee the rescue, cleanup and help the victims' families.
The Emergencies Ministry and Severstal said 16 miners had been killed and the fate of two others was unknown. Three people were taken to hospital after the blast, the company said.
"I need a clear report on the injured, the condition of their health and what kind of necessary specialized medical help they need. We are sending the appropriate experts from Moscow," Puchkov told officials.
Itar-Tass quoted him as saying each victim's family would be paid 2 million roubles ($66,400) in compensation.
Russia's federal Investigative Committee opened an investigation to check whether there had been safety violations at the Vorkutinskaya mine, which began production in 1973.
A major mine blast killed 110 people in the coal-mining region of Kemerevo in 2007 and another explosion in the same region in 2010 killed more than 60.
The Vorkutinskaya explosion caused the shares of mine owner Severstal to fall 2.2 per cent in Moscow, though the blast, which affected only one of the mine's walls, is not expected to greatly affect output of approximately 1 million tonnes a year.
Putin's decision to dispatch a minister to the region, which was part of the Gulag network of prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, appeared aimed at critics who say he failed to respond quickly enough to previous disasters.
The Kremlin chief, who first rose to power 13 years ago, has seen his ratings fall following major street protests against his rule and his opponents say that Russia faces economic and political stagnation under Putin's continued rule.
(Additional reporting by Maya Dyakina, Andrey Kuzmin, and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Thomas Grove, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Jon Boyle)