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The strikers number about 300, and they have been blocking other employees from entering the mine and administration buildings, preventing them from working, the spokeswoman said.

The strikers are also protesting against new safety regulations that the company introduced at the mines intended to reduce the rate of injuries.

Metinvest said that it did not know yet if production at the unit, which employs a total of 14,000 people, had been affected by the strike.

The management of the mining unit is in talks with representatives of the strikers, who are asking for monthly salaries to be doubled. The current average salary is 6,000 hryvnias ($505) after tax, the spokeswoman said.

Krasnodonugol has six coal mines in the Lugansk region of Ukraine. It produced 5.6 million tonnes of raw coal in 2011.

The unit’s coal is primarily used by Metinvest’s Azovstal Iron & Steel Works and Avdiivka Coke Plant.

Lugansk is about 150km from Donetsk, a major Ukrainian city in the east of the country, and less than 100km from the Russian border.

Political tension in the region, which led to a revolution in Ukraine’s capital Kiev at the end of 2013, is worsening following Russia’s annexation of the semi-autonomous region of Crimea in March.

Pro-Russian separatists have since occupied government building in cities in the east of Ukraine, including Donetsk.

Local press has reported that workers taking part in demonstrations in the region were acting in solidarity with colleagues who had lost their jobs for taking part in pro-Russian rallies.

Krasnodonugol ceo Alexander Angelovskiy said on Wednesday April 24 that the workers’ demands had “no connection with the real economic situation in the country”.

Steel production in the region has been largely unaffected by the political unrest, but steel exporters in Ukraine have come under pressure as obtaining pre-finance for trade has become increasingly difficult.

Oversupply has seen global coking coal prices tumble in recent months. Premium hard coking coal prices have fallen from more than $145 per tonne fob Australia at the end of November 2013 to about $115 per tonne fob at the end of April.

Metinvest mined 11.39 million tonnes of raw coking coal last year. The figure includes material mined at Krasnodonugol, as well as the company’s coal unit in the USA, United Coal.