The death toll from a gas explosion that occurred at disused Gloria coal mine on February 3 has risen to 18 after rescuers recovered 13 more bodies, police said on Friday.

The mine is near the town of Middelburg in Mpumalanga. More than 20 people went into the mine, reputedly to steal copper cables.

Michael Elliott, who is co-ordinating the rescue operations, told AFP that four bodies were initially brought out shortly after the explosion, and a fifth fatality died in hospital.

Last week, rescuers discovered seven bodies but failed to pull them out due to dangerous levels of methane gas. On Friday they went back underground and came out with 13 bodies.

“Today’s retrieval brings the total number of bodies brought to the surface to 18,” police spokesperson Leonard Hlathi said in a statement. “These are bodies of people who ... went into a mine shaft where they allegedly intended to steal copper cables.” 

He said another group forced its way into the mine apparently to rescue the trapped people, but “suffered the same fate”.

Elliot said another nine are believed to still be inside the mine, according to information gathered from the local community.