An explosion in a coal mine in the Dar-e-Sof district of the Samangan province in northern Afghanistan, has left 17 people dead and three missing.

According to provincial government spokesman Latfullah Azizi, 17 bodies have been recovered from the blast site and a rescue operation is underway to free at least 13 others who are trapped under the debris.

Azizi added that the number of casualties may go up further.

Darah Sof Balla district chief administrator Abdul Kahliq was quoted by Khaama Press as saying that the incident took place on Wednesday morning in the Dara-e-Suf Bala district of Samangan province.

Speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, Samangan Province Governor Khyrullah Anush said that coal was being illegally mined at the site and the explosion may have occurred due to chemicals being used for excavation.

"The explosion may have occurred due to chemicals being used for excavation."

Anush added that excavation work at the mine was being headed by Fatuhallah Karbalai, who fled from the area soon after the blast.

Anush stated that Karbalai had ignored warnings from engineers on 29 April about safety concerns and the possibility of explosion.

The police are searching for Karbalai in order to question him about the mine blast incident.

According to Anush, the province has around 2,000 legal coal mines that pay tax to the government, however, they operate in difficult conditions, as miners use shovels and pick axes to perform excavation work.

Anush was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the provincial government has tried to shut down some mines deemed unsafe, but that those in remote areas simply re-open.

The majority of the coal extracted from these mines is used during the winter period or exported to Kabul or Pakistan.