New Zealand authorises Pike River mine search

Rescue staff removing debris at the Pike River mine in New Zealand, 28 June 2011
Image caption The gas explosion was the country's worst mining disaster in almost a century

New Zealand's government has authorised search teams to enter the Pike River mine, where 29 miners were killed in a 2010 blast.

The operation, expected to begin later in the year, will cost an estimated NZ$7.2m ($5.6m, £3.6m) and take at least six months.

Teams will try to access the main tunnel leading up to a rock fall.

But the government said the chances of recovering the bodies of those who died remained slim.

The blast, on the west coast of the South Island, was one of the nation's worst mining disasters.

An official investigation last year found that the 19 November 2010 incident was caused by a methane gas explosion.

"This is a highly complex and technical operation and it will be carefully managed in stages, with a risk assessment undertaken at each stage," Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges said in a statement.

The government could not speculate on re-entering the main mine until the tunnel re-entry had been successfully achieved, he added.

The bodies of those who died are thought to be behind the rock fall area, which experts believe remains highly unstable.

"The chances of that [recovering remains] prior to and up to the rock fall are slim," Mr Bridges told a news conference.

Relatives have been calling for an attempt to recover victims' remains for months.

Pike River Coal has been ordered to pay NZ$110,000 to each victim's family and to two men who survived the disaster.

In April the company was found guilty of multiple health and safety violations. Its former chief executive, Peter Whittall, faces a separate trial.

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