SOMA, Turkey (Reuters) - Riot police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse several thousand protesters on Friday 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 cozy 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 honoring miners when police blocked the route and sprayed from armored 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 mine.
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 party’s base.
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 minister’s bodyguards.
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.
“PUTTING MAKE-UP ON THE MINE”
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 kilometers 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 organized.”
Opponents of Erdogan blame the government for privatizing leases at previously state-controlled mines, turning them over to politically-connected businessmen who they say may have skimped on safety to maximize 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 Labour Ministry.
“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 hot.
“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 hospitalized and a further 363 had either escaped on their own or were helped to safety.
Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Daren Butler Seda Sezer and Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Peter Graff