21 dead in fire at ArcelorMittal mine in Kazakhstan

A view of the Kazakhstan mine of ArcelorMittal, a Western steel giant which entered the Kazakh market after the Soviet collapse, in the industrial town of Shakhtinsk on 8 September, 2023AFP

At least 21 people were killed Saturday when a fire broke out at a mine in Kazakhstan belonging to the global steel giant ArcelorMittal, prompting the government to order an "end to investment cooperation" with the company.

It was the second deadly disaster in two months at an ArcelorMittal site in Kazakhstan, after five miners were killed in an accident at a mine in the same region in August.

"The government has been ordered to end investment cooperation with ArcelorMittal," Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said in a statement shortly after the fire near the town of Karaganda, an industrial region in central Kazakhstan.

ArcelorMittal's operations in the country have regularly been accused by authorities of failing to respect safety and environmental regulations.

At least 21 miners died at the Kostenko mine, and a search was continuing for 23 others who were among more than 200 underground when the fire struck, the company said in a statement.

Regional officials had said early that 40 rescuers had been sent to the site, with the government's emergency response minister, Syrym Sharipkhanov, announcing he would be arriving on site soon.

No cause of the accident has yet been released.

Series of accidents

The fire was the worst mining accident in Kazakhstan since 2006, when 41 miners died at another ArcelorMittal site.

Tokayev said an investigative commission would be set up to determine the cause.

After the fire at an ArcelorMittal coal mine in August, Tokayev denounced the "systemic character" of accidents involving the company that he said left more than 100 people dead since 2006.

ArcelorMittal operates around a dozen mines in the highly polluted industrial region of the vast, resource-rich country, formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Extraction of iron and coal as well as oil, gas and uranium have made its economy the largest in Central Asia, though accidents are common because of ageing infrastructure and equipment and lax safety standards.

In December 2022, the government had threatened to ban ArcelorMittal from operating in the country after a worker died in what the company called "an accident" at its factory in Termitau.