(Adds details on difficulties faced by trapped miners, rains, adds comments , paragraphs 5-8)
By Jorge Cabrera
SAN JUAN ARRIBA, Honduras, July 3 (Reuters) - Rescuers labored with pickaxes and shovels to dig out 11 miners trapped by a landslide at an illegal gold mine in southern Honduras, and are close to reaching three of the workers, officials said on Thursday.
The workers were trapped when the entrance of the mine in San Juan Arriba collapsed on Wednesday. Officials said the mine, 110 km (70 miles) south of the capital Tegucigalpa, had been ordered to close a few months ago because it was unsafe.
Rescue workers said they had made contact with three of the workers and were close to freeing them, though eight are still missing and it was unclear whether they were alive.
“The situation is complex, it is difficult because the tunnels are narrow, they branch off in a number of directions,” Moises Alvarado, a senior emergency services official in the region, said in a telephone interview.
Another problem, authorities said, was a growing threat of rains that could result in the search being suspended.
“That area is all limestone, which is sensitive to rain and could cause landslides, threatening the safety of the people involved in the rescue,” Oscar Triminio, a spokesman for the fire services, told Reuters.
Gerardo Flores, the Honduras manager of Mayan Gold, a U.S. miner based nearby that was involved in rescue efforts, told local television that without food, water and with little air, the trapped miners could expect to live just three or four days.
“The problems are just starting for the (trapped) people,” he said.
The collapse occurred in a drought-stricken region of Honduras that had been a gold mining center for Spanish colonists. The rise in gold prices in recent years had spurred dozens of small mines to open in the area.
Alvarado said many of the mines did not meet the most basic safety requirements and added that there were no maps of the underground structures, making the rescue operation harder.
“With the three miners we’ve located, we have auditory contact. They are banging their picks and shovels and yelling,” said Lieutenant Manuel de Jesus Reyes, a firefighter in the nearby city of Choluteca. “It seems like less noise today, but we keep working to get to them and save their lives.”
Hundreds of people including family members and neighbors had gathered near the entrance to the mine, but military troops cleared the area due to concerns of further landslides.
Juan Bautista Mendez, 48, a farm worker, said his 25-year old nephew was among the trapped. His nephew started three weeks ago in the mine, where miners earn about $14 a day, or three times the average day rate in the region, he said.
“I wouldn’t work there because it’s very dangerous, but these guys want to earn more,” Mendez said. “We trust in God that my nephew is alive and can be rescued.”
Honduran deputy environment minister Carlos Pineda told local television the mine was illegal and that it had been ordered closed by mining authorities several months ago.
“An inspection proved that these are not tunnels with wood supports and lighting, it’s just a hole in the ground,” he said. (Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Alden Bentley)