December 12, 2014 / 12:08 PM / in 3 years

Miners swell rebel ranks in east Ukraine as pits close

Workers stand at coal mine number 22 "Kommunar" in the village of Nizhnyaya Krynka, east of Donetsk, in this November 6, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/Files

DONETSK, Ukraine/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Even at the age of 52, retired coalminer Viktor felt compelled to come out of retirement and join the pro-Russian separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

He sympathized with the many miners who have laid down their tools and taken up arms against government forces, either because of their political beliefs or because they lost their jobs when their pits closed during the conflict, leaving Ukraine in need of imported coal and raising the prospect of power cuts.

“On May 23, I lied to my wife and left. I told her I was going to defend the factories and plants but I went to join the (rebel) militia,” he said in Donetsk, the rebels’ main stronghold in the industrial east.

“Many miners have left everything behind and joined the militia,” he said, cradling an AK-47 assault rifle in his lap.

Viktor declines to give his full name for fear of reprisals and prefers to go by his nom de guerre of “Miner”.

In a sign of the hardships suffered since the conflict began in mid-April, some of the miners who fight say they are paid with food rather than money.

Since June, production has been halted at 66 coal mines, leaving only 60 running, European coal association Euracoal said, denting Ukraine’s hopes of getting through winter without power cuts.

Several steel mills have also halted production, another blow to industry in the east, which in peace time contributed about 16 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product.

“People sit at home or join the ranks of the DNR,” said a 23-year-old coalminer who gave his name only as Artyom, referring to the rebels’ “Donetsk People’s Republic”. He joined up after losing his job at Zhdanovka mine in the Donetsk region.

GLOOMY PROSPECTS

It is not clear how many miners are now fighting, but joining up is not a decision that is taken lightly. More than 4,300 people have been killed in the conflict.

“We got straight into a bloodbath,” Viktor said, referring to a battle at Saur-Mogila, 80 km (50 miles) from Donetsk.

“It was hell, literally hell,” said Viktor, who can hardly move his right arm since being wounded in the shoulder.

The mining sector employed 330,000 people before the conflict but officials say 10 mines have flooded, others have been damaged by fighting and some may never reopen.

The loss of production is not affecting just the east - it is also a blow to the Western-looking government in Kiev whose control of the east is opposed by the separatists.

Ukraine is usually self-sufficient in coal, producing more than 60 million tonnes last year, but has declared a state of emergency in its electricity market and started limiting power supply.

It is estimated that Ukraine needs 1 to 2 million tonnes of imported coal a month between now and April.

The industry is unlikely to recover immediately, even if the conflict ends now or a ceasefire agreed on Sept. 5 takes hold.

Mikhailo Volynets, President of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, said huge investment would be needed and “several mines will never be repaired.”

“It’s hard to assess how long it would take to repair some of the mines. The electricity supply is irregular, miners don’t get paid and service shops are destroyed, so it’ll be extremely difficult,” he said.

Additional reporting by Svetlana Burmistrova in Msocow and Alessandra Prentice and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Writing by Andrey Kuzmin, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Anna Willard

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