The three were working at a depth of 900 metres (2,950 feet) when the gallery collapsed inside the Cabanasses mine near Barcelona

Súria (Spain) (AFP) - Three people trapped deep inside a Spanish potash mine when a gallery collapsed earlier on Thursday have died, Catalan leader Pere Aragones said.

“Unfortunately, we can confirm the death of three young people who were working in the mine,” Aragones told reporters outside Cabanasses mine in Suria, 75 kilometres (46 miles) northwest of Barcelona.

Rescuers had recovered and identified the bodies of three people who were “around 30 years old”, he said, sending his condolences to their families and colleagues.

One of the victims had been an intern there for just a few days, while another was working at the mine for nearly six months. The third had been there for three years, said a spokesman for ICL Iberia, which runs the mine.

Two had been studying for master’s degrees in engineering at the University Polytechnic of Catalonia (PCU), while the other was doing a doctorate in geology at the University of Barcelona, the establishments said.

Rescuers said the three victims had been trapped “at a depth of about 900 metres” (2,950 feet) after one of the galleries collapsed just before 9:00 am (0800 GMT).

Despite frantic efforts to reach them, it was hours before rescuers got down to the place where they could confirm their deaths.

At the time of the collapse, the three were working on a routine task they carried out every day, a mine worker colleague said

The rescue was complicated by the need to ensure the safety of the teams involved, regional interior minister Joan Ignasi Elena had told reporters earlier, saying it would be “reckless” to rush such an operation.

Just after midday, Aragones announced the deaths on Twitter saying: “We deeply regret the death of the three miners in the accident in Suria mine.”

Several minutes later, he deleted the tweet.

Many local and national media outlets also said they had died, citing sources in the emergency services, but police said they could not confirm the reports until “they were reached by a doctor” and their families had been notified.

- ‘No warning’ -

When the gallery collapsed, all three were carrying out “a routine task that they do every day”, mine worker Carlos Arnaldo told reporters at the scene.

“Sometimes the mine gives you no warning: the roof caves in and nothing can be done,” he said.

Map of Spain locating Suria, where a mine collapsed on Thursday

“This is terrible news,” tweeted Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz, sending “love and solidarity to the families and colleagues of the workers caught up in the collapse at the Suria mine”.

Owned by ICL Iberia, the Spanish arm of Israel’s ICL Group, which specialises in fertilisers and chemicals, the Cabanasses mine had recently passed a security inspection, officials said.

“The last inspection was just three weeks ago and it was cleared without any sign of irregularities,” Catalan regional business minister Roger Torrent told reporters at the scene.

ICL Iberia is the only company that produces potassium salts in Spain, handling both the extraction, treatment and marketing, its website says.

Based in Suria, it has 1,100 employees.

Two miners died in December 2013 when a gallery collapsed at the same mine, the Catalan press reported at the time, citing an official statement.

The last major mining accident in Spain was two months earlier, in October 2013, when six people were killed and five others injured following a gas leak at a coal mine in the northwest.

It was the worst accident at a Spanish mine since 14 miners were killed in August 1995 during a methane explosion at a coal mine in the northern province of Asturias.