Kazakhstan reported on Saturday that the greatest disaster to hit the Central Asian nation in years has claimed 32 lives in a fire in yet another fatal accident at an ArcelorMittal mine, with over a dozen workers still unaccounted for.
The ArcelorMittal group, listed on the Luxembourg stock exchange, was dubbed the “worst” corporation “in our history” by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who also gave the order for his government to seize control of the company’s Kazakh unit.
ArcelorMittal is frequently accused of disregarding safety and environmental rules, and the company has a history of fatal accidents in Kazakhstan.
The fire, which occurred barely two months after a blast at a site operated by the business claimed the lives of five miners, was among the bloodiest in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history.
“At the Kostenko mine as of 4 p.m. (1000 GMT) the bodies of 32 people have been found,” the emergency situations ministry said in a statement. “The search for 14 miners is continuing.”
“This is a tragedy,” Tokayev said as he met with families of the victims in the Karaganda region.
He called for a day of national mourning on Sunday.
Tokayev, who has decried ArcelorMittal’s safety record, ordered his government to take control of the mines.
“This company has turned out to be the worst in our history from the point of view of cooperation between a company and the government,” Tokayev said.
He asked the deputy governor of the Karaganda region, Vadim Basin — who used to work for ArcelorMittal — to head the company.
“The current management of the company cannot do anything,” he added.
Earlier, Kazakhstan’s government said it would work towards nationalisation.
No cause of the accident has been announced yet, with Tokayev saying an investigative commission would be set up.
Five deadly accidents in a year
The fire was Kazakhstan’s worst mining accident since 2006, when 41 miners died at an ArcelorMittal site, and came two months after five miners were killed in a blast this summer.
There have been five other deadly accidents at ArcelorMittal in Kazakhstan since November last year, resulting in 12 deaths together.
Ambulances and police entered the mine compound on Saturday, an AFP reporter saw.
ArcelorMittal promised compensation and said it would cooperate with authorities.
“Our efforts are aimed at that (compensation) and on the tight cooperation with state authorities,” it said.
Tokayev said an investigative commission would be set up to determine the cause.
Officials said 18 people had been hospitalised after the fire.
“Fifteen of them are in the toxicology department with carbon monoxide poisoning,” said regional health department head Bibigul Tulegenova.
Putin sends condolences
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to his Kazakh ally.
“Please convey words of sympathy and support to the families of the killed miners,” Putin said in a statement.
“We hope for the saving of the miners that are underground.”
After the fire at an ArcelorMittal coal mine in August, Tokayev denounced the “systemic character” of accidents involving the company that he said had left more than 100 people dead since 2006.
ArcelorMittal operates around a dozen mines in the highly polluted industrial region of the vast, resource-rich country, formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Extraction of iron and coal as well as oil, gas and uranium have made its economy the largest in Central Asia, though accidents are common because of ageing infrastructure and equipment and lax safety standards.
In December 2022, the government had threatened to ban ArcelorMittal from operating in the country after a worker died in what the company called “an accident” at its factory in Temirtau.
The death came just a month after five miners were killed at another Arcelor site in the region.