The owner of a coal mine where five labourers have been trapped in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district has been arrested, a police officer told PTI on Thursday. Meanwhile, the search for the five men is still underway with personnel from the State Disaster Response Force, fire services and a 24-member National Disaster Response Force team involved in the operation.

The owner, Shining Langstang, was arrested from Sutnga village, located close to the mine. “The Sordar [mine manager] is on the run and we are trying to arrest him,” Superintendent of Police Jagpal Singh Dhanoa said. “In this regard, a lookout notice has been issued and his posters have been put up throughout the district.” The police have identified him as the main accused.

On Monday, the police had identified Nizam Ali as the primary accused, who they said “did nothing to rescue the trapped labourers” and instead threatened those who survived. A first information report was registered at Khliehriat police station under the Disaster Management Act on Monday and one person was detained for questioning.

The five labourers – four from Assam and one from Tripura – have been trapped inside the coal mine since May 30. The rescue teams were not able to make any progress on Thursday due to the water level in the main vertical shaft, an official said. East Jaintia Hills District Deputy Commissioner E Kharkmalki said that the NDRF had confirmed that the water level is 150 feet in the main shaft “which is not conducive for rescue operations”.

“As of now, more water pumps should be put into action to lower the water level,” Kharkmalki told PTI. “Additional water pumps will be used tomorrow [Friday].”

On Wednesday, hooks, ropes and a crane were used to reach the miners.

The district police found the location where the miners are trapped on Monday at 6 am. The authorities attributed the delay to “inclement weather, poor night light condition and non-availability of any eye witness account”.

Meanwhile, Meghalaya Chief Minister said that Conrad K Sangma on Thursday pledged to launch a crackdown but admitted that illegal mining was still going on.

“Appropriate action as per the law will be taken against all those involved in the incident,” Sangma said, according to The Shillong Times. “We are making all efforts to ensure that no illegal activities take place. We can presume they wanted to start some sort of mining there.”

Sangma also promised that his administration will do everything to ensure that those trapped in the mine are rescued in time. The chief minister said that Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui has been monitoring the rescue operation.

Leader of Opposition Mukul Sangma on Wednesday said the state government was responsible for the incident and alleged that illegal coal mining has been blatantly carried out across Meghalaya.

Workers dig a deep vertical shaft till coal seams are found in the mine. Coal is then taken out through small holes along the horizontal line of the seams. After the National Green Tribunal’s ban in 2014, hazardous rat-hole coal mining has not been permitted in Meghalaya.

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