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PORTOVELO, Ecuador: Ecuadoran rescuers on Saturday succeeded in creating openings large enough to pump fresh air to four men trapped in a caved-in gold mine, the government said.
But despite the progress, emergency workers had not yet made contact with the men and relatives faced continued uncertainty about whether their loved ones were still alive.
The Ecuadoran miners became trapped in the early hours of Friday morning, after the collapse blocked their exit from the mine, leaving the four men stuck some 150 metres below ground in the Casa Negra mine.
A government crisis committee said rescuers had managed to remove enough of the rock and earth blocking the tunnel to "inject air into the area where the miners are" through two access holes.
News that the men were trapped came shortly 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.
Emergency workers and officials in Ecuador acknowledged Saturday they had not been able to make contact with the men and were unable to confirm whether any or all of them were alive or had been injured in the accident.
"Up until now, we have had no communication whatsoever," deputy mining minister Jorge Espinosa told AFP.
President Rafael Correa said an electronic probe with a camera was being flown by helicopter to the mine to see if it could be used to make contact with the miners.
Authorities have named the missing men as group leader Walter Vera, his brother Angel Vera, Pedro Mendoza, and Paul Aguirre.
Espinosa stressed that "the rescue work is continuing as planned and we are very close to reaching" the area where the miners are thought to be trapped.
Officials "have great hope that the miners are alive," he added.
"We think that there is sufficient space for them to survive."
The local civil defense office was more circumspect in its assessment of the situation.
"The mine does not contain any internal communications system and so we cannot confirm if they are alive," said local coordinator Marco Reinoso.
Reinoso told AFP earlier that rescue workers were proceeding on two fronts -- one to get oxygen to the trapped men, and the other to tunnel an escape route for the four miners.
On the second front, "we have gotten through five meters and we have three more to go" to reach the men through the rocks and earth that have blocked their exit, said Fabian Garces, an engineer with Minesadco, the Ecuadoran company that owns the mine.
Maria del Pilar Cornejo, a government risk management official, said from the scene that it would take at least another 24 hours to reach the men because more than 200 tons of rock and earth must be removed.
The men are trapped at the fifth level of the mine, and are believed to be in a gallery about 60 metres wide and two meters high.
The gold and silver mine employs around 100 people.
It is located close to the town of Portovelo in El Oro province, some 405
kilometres from the capital Quito, near Ecuador's border with Peru.
As rescue workers resumed their work Saturday, they filed before an image of the patron saint of miners, removing their helmets and crossing themselves, asking for protection and success.
Nearby, relatives of the four men waited anxiously for any news of their loved ones.
"We trust God, because with God nothing is impossible," said Filomena, the aunt of Walter and Angel Vera.
Alicia Reyes, another relative of the Vera brothers, said she had begun to "fear the worst."
"It's been more than 24 hours they've been down there," she said. "We keep hoping, but so far nothing.
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