The three were trapped at a depth of 900 metres (2,950 feet) after the collapse of a gallery at a potash mine near Barcelona, rescuers said

Súria (Spain) (AFP) - Rescuers were struggling on Thursday to reach three people trapped deep underground after an accident at a Spanish potash mine, with officials admitting they “feared the worst”.

Rescuers said they were trapped “at a depth of about 900 metres” (2,950 feet) after one of the galleries collapsed at the Cabanasses mine in Suria, 75 kilometres (46 miles) northwest of Barcelona.

The accident occurred just before 9:00 am (0800 GMT).

Several hours later, their deaths appeared to be confirmed in a tweet by Catalan regional leader Pere Aragones but it was deleted just minutes later.

“We deeply regret the death of the three miners in the accident in Suria mine,” he wrote.

Many local and national media outlets said they had died, quoting sources among the rescue services.

But police said they could only confirm whether they were dead or alive “when they were reached by a doctor” and their families had been notified.

Speaking to reporters at the scene shortly afterwards, regional interior minister Joan Ignasi Elena did not confirm their deaths but said: “The information we have makes us fear the worst.”

“The authorities that could confirm such a thing haven’t been able to reach them yet because we have to ensure their safety,” he said, indicating it would be “reckless” to rush such an operation.

In a tweet, the regional fire service said efforts to reach them were likely to continue “for the next few hours.”

- Mine recently passed inspection -

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

Police said they had dispatched specialists in mountain and underground rescue operations along with a dog unit to the mine while the emergency services sent two medical helicopters and a team of psychologists.

In a tweet, Daniel Crespo, rector of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), said two of those caught in the mine collapse were “master’s students at the Manresa engineering school”.

It was not clear what they were doing at the site.

“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.