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Four persons were found dead in an abandoned rat-hole coal mine in Nagaland’s Longleng district, Sunday, the police said. However, the exact circumstances of their presence at the mine are yet to be established. Also, the exact cause of the death could not be established since their families refused to get their postmortem conducted, said officials.

“Four persons, all hailing from Assam, were found dead in an abandoned coal mine. The government has banned coal mining as of now. We suspect that these men had gone inside the mine to retrieve their equipment and belongings when they inhaled some toxic gases emanating from there. Police is investigating the incident and further details are awaited,” a spokesperson of the Longleng district police told media.

The bodies have been identified as those of Krishna Gogoi (32), Tutu Deka (28), Jitan Tanti (40) and Shushan Phutan (37) and have been handed over to the families.

Following the collapse of an illegal coal mine in Meghalaya last December trapping 15 miners, the Nagaland government in January decided to ban illegal coal mining in the state and also impose a provisional mining ban on all firms/companies which have been issued with mining licences. The Nagaland Cabinet set up a Committee to examine the issue of coal mining and the resultant damages caused to the environment.

DC of Longleng district, John Tsulise Sangtam, said the workers had gone back to collect their belongings “which they had left after ending work at the mine when the ban was imposed”.

“The bodies of the four persons have been handed over to the families after they gave in written that they do not want postmortem to be done. Therefore exact cause of death could not be ascertained. Toxic gas could be one reason, but the other possibility is them being affected by a mudslide inside the abandoned mine,” Sangtam said.

At least 15 workers were trapped and feared dead inside the mine in Ksan area on December 13 — and rescue operations have been on since then. Illegal rat-hole (in which narrow tunnels, 3- to 4-feet high, are dug into mountains for workers to move through and extract coal) mining has continued to thrive in Meghalaya despite a ban imposed in 2014 by the National Green Tribunal.