BLAST KILLS 80 UKRAINIAN MINERS. Eighty miners were killed in a blast at the Barakova coal mine in Krasnodon, Luhansk Oblast, on 11 March. Another died the next day in the hospital, while seven others remain hospitalized. A preliminary investigation suggested the accident was a methane explosion caused by a violation of safety regulations, Interfax reported. Mykhaylo Volynets, chairman of the Independent Miners' Union, commented that the cause might have been a coal dust explosion ignited by welding equipment. President Leonid Kuchma has declared 13 and 14 March days of national mourning, while the government has sent 10 million hryvni ($1.8 million) to help the victims' families. Ukraine has the world's worst coal industry death rate. Last year, 274 miners died in mine accidents, while in 1998 the death toll was 360. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT STRESSES SUPPORT FOR REFERENDUM... Leonid Kuchma told the 10 March Kyiv-based "Fakty" newspaper that he favors holding the 16 April constitutional referendum, even though the parliament has formed a pro-government majority. "If the referendum is canceled..., there'll be a threat of the majority falling apart," Kuchma said. He added that he supports a bicameral legislature because an upper chamber composed of regional leaders would block "populist resolutions" adopted by the lower chamber. The same day, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry and Justice Ministry accused the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of "partiality" with regard to the upcoming referendum in Ukraine. The ministries were responding to a PACE monitoring committee's draft resolution that questions the legality of a referendum organized on the basis of a popular initiative. JM

...PLEDGES NOT TO MAKE OVER COMPANIES FOR GAS DEBT. In the same interview with "Fakty," Kuchma denied rumors that Kyiv will transfer some profit-making Ukrainian companies to Russia as repayment of Ukraine's gas debt. Those rumors emerged following Russian Deputy Premier Mikhail Kasyanov's visit to Kyiv earlier this month, when he is said to have pressed for such a deal. "I think that it is simply inappropriate and rude to raise the issue of gas debts in such a manner...particularly since Russia itself only a few days ago managed to restructure its debts to the West," Kuchma noted. Kuchma said he agreed with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and current acting President Vladimir Putin on a "mechanism" for repayment of Ukraine's gas debt. Kuchma added that he has ordered the government to work out a debt repayment schedule but gave no other details. JM

UKRAINE'S YOUNG COMMUNISTS FORM NEW ORGANIZATION. Some 120 delegates from throughout Ukraine took part in the constituent congress of the Ukrainian Communist Youth Union in Kyiv on 11 March, Interfax reported. The congress was held among rumors that the new organization is expected to prompt a split in Ukraine's communist youth movement, which is controlled by the Communist Party. Oleksandr Starynets, an organizer of the new communist youth organization and first secretary of the old one, Komsomol, told the congress that Komsomol has been turned into "a youth detachment of the Communist Party, devoid of autonomy and forced to play obediently according to the rules of older communist comrades." A day earlier, Starynets told journalists that the new organization will back Ukraine's statehood. He did not rule out that it might propose the creation of a "new type" of the Communist Party. JM

POLAND CELEBRATES 1,000 YEARS OF STATEHOOD. Four presidents from neighboring countries--Germany's Johannes Rau, Hungary's Arpad Goencz, Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus, and Slovakia's Rudolf Schuster--were in Poland on 12 March to attend celebrations marking the 1,000th anniversary of Poland's statehood. Czech President Vaclav Havel and Ukraine's Leonid Kuchma were both unable to attend, the former for health reasons, while the latter canceled his visit owing to the tragic mining accident. The summit commemorated German Emperor Otto III's visit to Gniezno 1,000 years ago during which he in effect recognized Polish ruler Boleslaw I Chrobry (the Brave) as king of the country. "We appeal to the nations of oppose all manifestations of hatred, xenophobia, racism, aggressive nationalism, and extremism," the presidents said in a joint declaration read by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski to Gniezno residents. JM

KAZAKHSTAN, UKRAINE DISCUSS EXPANDING ECONOMIC, OIL COOPERATION. Ukraine's Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko met in Astana on 10-11 March with his Kazakh counterpart, Qasymzhomart Toqaev, and President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Russian agencies reported. Their talks focused on increasing the amount of crude oil Kazakhstan ships to Ukraine for refining, the prospects for exporting Kazakhstan's oil to international markets via Ukraine, and Kazakhstan's desire to privatize the Kherson oil refinery, in which Kazakhstan has a majority stake. On 11 March, representatives of the two countries' governments signed a protocol on cooperation in the nuclear fuel industry. LF