PORTOVELO, Ecuador: Three of four workers trapped in a collapsed Ecuadoran gold mine were found dead on Saturday, while the status of the fourth man remained unknown, officials said.

The Ecuadoran miners were trapped early on Friday, 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.

The four men became trapped after a collapse blocked their exit from the mine, leaving them stuck some 150 metres below ground in the Casa Negra mine.

"Three of the four trapped miners have been found dead," said a civil defense source on condition of anonymity, adding that recovery workers had so far been able to extract the body of the chief miner, Walter Vera, 31.

Vera was trapped in the mine with his brother Angel -- who is a machine operator -- and two other miners, said officials with both the government and Minesadco, the Ecuadoran company that operates the mine.

Earlier Saturday, rescuers 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 reported no contact with the men and relatives faced continued uncertainty about their loved ones' fate.

The men were trapped at the fifth level of the mine, and were believed to be in a gallery about 60 metres wide and two metres 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.

Portovelo, established in 1542 by the Spanish on the western slopes of the Andes, is one of the main mining centers in the province.

The Casa Negra mine was worked for half a century by the US-based South American Development Company (SADCO) until it pulled out in 1950.

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