Rescuers dig for Ecuador miners
Portovelo - Rescue crews dug further into a collapsed gold mine in Ecuador on Sunday and sorted through rubble by hand in a desperate search for two miners who officials say still could be alive.
"We still have hope that they are alive," said Non-Renewable Resources Minister Carlos Pareja after crews completed a tunnel some 150 metres deep and searched in the rubble for the miners, trapped since Friday.
Two of the four men trapped in the mine, one Peruvian and one Ecuadoran, were found dead on Saturday but officials say the other two may be hiding deep within the mine in the coastal town of Portovelo, 400km southwest of Quito.
Pareja added that he asked the missing men's family members, some of whom are maintaining a vigil at the mine site, to remain patient.
A representative of the Ecuadoran company Minesadco, which operates the mine, said workers were "digging about five metres from the place where the miners are presumed to be, but unfortunately there is a lot of debris that is hindering progress".
Digging by hand
Authorities identified the two victims as Walter Vera, 31, the head of the group, and Paul Aguirre, 21, of Peru.
Vera's brother Angel, 29, is a machine operator and was also trapped inside the mine. The fourth man is Pedro Mendoza, 28.
"We are working like moles, digging by hand to open small gaps," the rescuer said as he emerged from the mountain after a night shift.
"We need air, it is hard to breathe," added another.
Pareja has denied earlier reports that three of the miners were confirmed dead, telling reporters that only two bodies had been recovered while rescuers believe that the other two miners "are deeper inside the mine and are alive".
The miners were trapped early on Friday, days after Chile completed its historic, successful rescue of 33 miners who had been stuck underground in the San Jose mine for a record period of nearly 10 weeks.
Holes punched for air
The four became trapped after a collapse blocked their exit, leaving them stuck below ground in the Casa Negra mine.
On Saturday, rescuers punched holes large enough to pump fresh air to the part of the mine where the four men had been trapped.
The men were trapped at the fifth level of the mine, and were believed to be in a gallery about 60m wide and 2m high.
But despite the progress, emergency workers reported no contact with the miners.
Robotic probe sent in
In Quito, President Rafael Correa said that a robotic probe equipped with a camera was sent into the area in an attempt to contact the missing miners.
The head of the national Civil Defence office, Maria del Pilar Cornejo, arrived at the mine with the probe, but discovered that rescuers first have to move "more than 200 tons" of rocks and dirt blocking the entrance to get the probe through.
Some of the relatives of the trapped miners waited outside the mine for news of their loved ones.
The Casa Negra gold and silver mine, which employs around 100 people, is located near the town of Portovelo in El Oro province, some 405km from the capital Quito, near Ecuador's border with Peru.
Portovelo, established in 1542 by the Spanish on the western slopes of the Andes, has a population of 14 000 and is one of the main mining centres in the province.