A protester runs away from tear gas fired by riot police during a demonstration blaming the ruling AK Party (AKP) government for the mining disaster in western Turkey. REUTERS/Stringer
Riot police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse
several thousand protesters in a Turkish mining town still
grieving the death of some 300 workers in the nation's worst
ever industrial disaster.
Anger has swept Turkey as the extent of the disaster became
clear, with protests aimed at mine owners accused of ignoring
safety for profit, and at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's
government, seen as too cosy with industry tycoons and
insensitive in its reaction to the tragedy.
"Stop spraying us with water! Go spray the mine! Maybe you
can finally put the fire out!" shouted one man among the
crowd, which had been trying to march towards a statue in the
town centre honouring miners when police blocked the route
and sprayed from armoured trucks.
The confirmed death toll in the disaster reached 292 as
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said eight more bodies were
found in the mine on Friday evening. Some 10 more people were
believed still trapped and unlikely to be alive, three days
after fire sent deadly carbon monoxide coursing through the
Turkey has experienced a decade of rapid economic growth
under Erdogan, but worker safety standards have failed to
keep pace, leaving it with one of the world's worst
industrial accident records.
"No coal can warm the hearts of children whose fathers died
in the mine," read one hand-written sign in the crowd of mine
workers and residents.
The police intervention in the mourning town could add to
public anger towards Erdogan. He survived mass demonstrations
and a corruption probe into his government over the past year
to remain Turkey's dominant politician, but now risks
alienating conservative, working-class voters that form his
Footage emerged of him apparently slapping a man as residents
jeered and jostled his entourage when he visited Soma this
week. The man, Taner Kuruca, said Erdogan had indeed slapped
him and told Kanal D TV he was then beaten by the prime
AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik said there was no visual
evidence of Erdogan striking anyone, while his adviser Yalcin
Akdogan, writing in the Star newspaper, accused "gang
members" of provoking the prime minister's team as he went to
meet mourning families.
Police have clashed with protesters in Turkey's three biggest
cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir in recent days. Anger was
intensified by a photograph of an Erdogan aide kicking a
protester held down by police special forces.
Officials from the mine held a tense news conference, giving
their most detailed account so far of what had happened. An
unexplained build-up of heat was thought to have led part of
the mine to collapse, fanning a blaze which spread rapidly
more than two kilometres below the surface, the mine's
general manager Ramazan Dogru told a news conference.
"It was an unbelievable accident in a place where there have
been very few accidents in 30 years," Soma Holding Chairman
Alp Gurkan said. "A mine with top level miners, accepted as
being the most trustworthy and organised."
Opponents of Erdogan blame the government for privatising
leases at previously state-controlled mines, turning them
over to politically-connected businessmen who they say may
have skimped on safety to maximise profit.
Questioned on the relationship between Soma Holding
executives and Erdogan's ruling AK Party, mine boss Dogru
confirmed his wife was a local AK Party politician. Company
chairman Gurkan said he had never met the prime minister
before this week.
The AK Party said the formerly state-run mine at Soma, 480 km
(300 miles) southwest of Istanbul, had been inspected 11
times over the past five years. It denied any suggestion of
loopholes in mining safety regulations.
But some mine workers questioned the inspection procedure.
"The inspections were carried out with a week's notice from
Ankara and we were instructed to get ready," said one miner
in Soma who gave his name as Ramazan, reluctant to identify
himself further for fear of retribution by his employer.
"It was like putting make-up on the mine."
Thousands gathered after noon prayers on Thursday for mass
funerals at Soma's main cemetery, where more than a hundred
tightly packed graves have been newly dug. Efforts continued
to retrieve those still trapped.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said a team of inspectors and
prosecutors had entered parts of the mine which were safely
accessible to begin an investigation.
Plant manager Akin Celik said there was no question of
negligence on the part of the company. Gurkan was more
cautious, saying he would wait for an inquiry led by the
"If there is neglect within the operations, a mistake, a
shortcoming, I'll follow up legally to ensure those
responsible are punished," he said, adding a foundation would
probably be established to pay compensation to the families
of the dead.
Initial reports blamed a fault at an electrical sub-station,
but Dogru said the fire had started when a coal seam grew
"The heated-up area collapsed with pieces of glowing coal
falling, causing the fire to quickly spread. It has nothing
to do with the sub-station," he said.
Celik, the plant manager, said intense smoke had then blocked
the miners' way out, with visibility dropping to zero. He
pointed to an escape route on a diagram which he said the
trapped miners had been unable to reach.
He estimated that efforts to pump clean air into the mine had
helped to save around 100 workers. The company said 122
miners had been hospitalised and a further 363 had either
escaped on their own or were helped to safety.