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A powerful methane explosion in a coal mine in northwestern Colombia may have left 72 miners dead, making it one of the worst mining disasters in the country's history, officials said.

Only seven of the 79 miners who were working underground at the San Fernando mine near the city of Amaga at the time of the explosion Thursday

could be recovered alive, said Alfredo Ramos, governor of Antioquia province.

Twenty bodies had been recovered, he added. There was little hope of survival for the 52 miners still missing, as there was no breathable air left in the mine, which reaches to a depth of 1,500 metres, he said.

According to Ramos, the mine passed a safety inspection last week despite lacking a ventilation system for dangerous gases, a basic safety feature.

The explosion was felt across several kilometres distance from the mine, local media reported.

Normally 600 miners work in the mine, but the explosion occurred during shift change, likely sparing some lives.

In an earlier statement, President Alvaro Uribe confirmed 16 deaths, adding that the trapped miners faced 'a very difficult fate'.

Colombian mines, including many which are illegal, are considered especially dangerous. The mine hit by the explosion, however, was licensed and considered to be one of the safer operations.
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