Karaganda, Kazakhstan mine
Relatives of miners gather at the Kostenko coal mine during a power outage, as a rescue operation continues following a mine fire, in Karaganda, Kazakhstan October 28, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Karaganda, Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan was in nationwide mourning Sunday after 36 people died in a fire at an ArcelorMittal mine, the worst such disaster in years which has prompted the nationalisation of the company's local affiliate.

The Ministry of Emergency Situations said at 10:00 am local time (0400 GMT), "the bodies of 36 miners were found and 10 workers were still being sought".

The chances of finding them alive are, however, "very low," the rescuers warned the night before, due to the lack of ventilation in the mine and the force of Saturday's explosion, which spread over two kilometres.

Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev travelled to the scene of the incident Saturday and ordered cooperation with ArcelorMittal be "brought to an end".

Speaking to victims' relatives at the Karaganda mine in the country's centre, Tokayev called ArcelorMittal "the worst enterprise in Kazakhstan's history in terms of cooperation with the government".

The Kazakh government and the steel giant announced a preliminary agreement to "transfer ownership of the (local) firm in favour of the Republic of Kazakhstan", Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov stated.

"ArcelorMittal can confirm that the two parties have... signed a preliminary agreement for a transaction that will transfer ownership to the Republic of Kazakhstan," the global steel giant stated, adding it was committed to "finalising this transaction as soon as possible."

On Sunday, flags were at half-mast to mark the day of national mourning declared by Tokayev, an AFP correspondent saw.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, about 200 miners have died in Kazakhstan, the vast majority at ArcelorMittal sites.

The group's arrival in Kazakhstan in 1995 was initially seen as a beacon of hope in the economic slump that followed the fall of communism.

But a lack of investment and inadequate safety standards were repeatedly criticised by the authorities, while trade unions called for tighter government control.

ArcelorMittal, led by Luxembourg-based Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal, operates some 15 factories and mines in the centre of the former Soviet republic.