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27 missing after NZ mine explosion

Concerns are growing for the fate of 27 miners after an explosion ripped through one of New Zealand's largest coal mines.

Five workers, who were slightly injured, stumbled to the surface hours later, but 27 remain unaccounted for, officials said.

Police said that shortly before the blast the electricity went out in the mine, which may have caused ventilation problems.

That may have contributed to a build-up of gas underground. Rescue teams were waiting for word that the mine was safe to enter.

The explosion was powerful enough to blow one driver off his machine deep in a tunnel and a mine safety expert said gas was a possible cause of the blast, although police spokeswoman Barbara Dunn and the mine's operator stressed it was too early to say why it occurred.

Television footage showed blackened and singed trees and light smoke billowing from the top of a mountain where a 360-foot ventilation shaft emerges. A nearby hut was blown down, suggesting a powerful blast had shot up the shaft from deep in the mine.

Rescue teams and emergency workers rushed by helicopter and road to the mine, in remote and rugged mountains near the town of Atarau on New Zealand's South Island.

The condition of the missing miners was not clear, but the prospect that they could be alive but trapped recalls the dramatic saga of 33 Chilean mine workers who spent 69 days half a mile deep in a collapsed gold and copper mine. They were rescued last month in an event that captivated the world.

Pike River chairman John Dow said each miner carried 30 minutes of oxygen supply - enough to reach oxygen stores in the mine that he said would allow them to survive for "several days".

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the situation at the mine had the potential to be very serious, adding: "The government has told the company it will provide any support that is required. It is an Australian company that owns the mine and the Australian government has also contacted us offering their support (and) assistance."

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