At least five people have died and many others are feared to be trapped as three abandoned coal mines collapsed during an illegal mining operation in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district, ANI reported on Tuesday, citing the police.

Dhanbad Sub Divisional Magistrate Prem Kumar Tiwari said that among the deceased were three women and a girl employed with the Gopinathpur Open Cast Project that falls under mining company Eastern Coalfields in the Nirsa police station area, reported PTI.

Tiwari said a search operation was underway to find those trapped inside.

Dhanbad Senior Superintendent of Police Sanjeev Kumar said that the police have formed a Special Investigation Team to investigate the matter. He added that the police have also written to the directorate general of mines safety, seeking a report to ascertain the cause of the incident.

The other two mines that collapsed are in the Kapasara area owned by Eastern Coalfields and Chach Victoriya of the Bharat Coking Coal Limited. These two mines caved in on Monday, and the other one on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, former MLA and Centre of Indian Trade Unions leader Arup Chatterjee claimed that at least 15 people have died in the three incidents, reported The Times of India. However, the authorities have confirmed the death of only five people.

Chatterjee claimed that 10 people died at the Gopinathpur Open Cast Project and two lost their lives at the Kapasara mine. He added that two women and a girl had died at the Dahibari colliery of the Bharat Coking Coal Limited.

However, Superintendent of Police (Dhanbad-Rural) Reeshma Ramesan said: “I can’t say much about the number of casualties and injured. We are verifying the details and would be able to give information only after getting reports. Our teams have rushed there.”

She added that only the coal companies could provide information on the number of people trapped inside. Officials said that families of those who died have not reported the incident to the police fearing action on illegal mining.

An official of the Eastern Coalfields said that the incidents happened at the company’s abandoned mines and so the matter should be handled by the district administration.

“There is no such information [of collapse] in our working mines,” he said. “The collapse might have happened due to illegal activities in the abandoned mines.”

Illegal coal mining from abandoned mines are believed to be prevalent in Dhanbad, according to The Hindu.

“It has been going on for many years in complicity with coal mafias, police and politicians. Dhanbad mafias are infamous for illegal trade in coal which they call ‘black diamond”, a former employee of Eastern Coalfields told The Hindu. “The death toll may go up in the days to come. Victims’ families hesitate to claim the body for fear of administrative action.”

Meanwhile, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren expressed grief on the incident. He said that the district administration was carrying out rescue and relief work.