Mine explosion protest in Turkey

Turkish riot police clash with protestors in Istanbul during a demonstration for the victims of the Soma mine explosion. (Erdem Sahn / European Pressphoto Agency / May 15, 2014)

As public fury mounted Thursday along with the casualty toll in what officials were describing as Turkey’s deadliest mine accident, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan found himself on the defensive in the wake of a seemingly tone-deaf response to the disaster. 

The number of confirmed dead rose to 282, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported, citing Energy Minister Taner Yildiz. Outside the town of Soma in western Turkey, the families of miners still missing kept a grief-suffused vigil, even as prospects dimmed for finding any survivors.

A major labor confederation called a strike in response to the disaster, and Turks again took to the streets Thursday to protest safety lapses in the mine complex.

Yildiz said that as of Thursday morning, no one had been found alive for the past 12 hours. About 150 miners were still unaccounted for. Throughout the day Wednesday, relatives and other onlookers sobbed or looked on numbly as one body after another was borne up out of the depths.

On Thursday, the pace of recovery slowed as rescuers sought to penetrate more remote areas of the maze of tunnels. Harrowing stories emerged of the miners' desperate attempts to survive.

Fourteen miners who initially survived found shelter in an underground "refuge room," but there was not enough oxygen for them, rescuers told the Hurriyet newspaper. All 14 died after apparently passing the insufficient oxygen tanks among themselves, the report said.

With a round of funerals now underway, the government has declared three days of mourning for the victims of the catastrophic underground fire, which broke out Tuesday afternoon and was thought to have been sparked by an explosion in a power distribution unit.

Yildiz told reporters Thursday morning that the fire had still not been extinguished, and said most of the deaths were due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The disaster cast a spotlight on harsh and dangerous working conditions endured by miners in Turkey, and raised troubling questions as to whether cozy relationships between mine owners and the government had quashed stricter safety standards. Two weeks ago, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, had rejected calls for a parliamentary probe of safety practices in the Soma mines.

Angry demonstrations flared for a second day Thursday in cities including Istanbul, Turkey's largest city; the capital, Ankara; and the coastal city of Izmir, near Soma. Police fired tear gas and water cannons to try to contain the protests.

On a visit Wednesday to Soma, Erdogan, under police protection, was heckled by a hostile crowd, and a widely circulated photo showed a man identified as a senior Erdogan aide kicking a prone demonstrator.

The mine tragedy could carry damaging political repercussions for the prime minister, who is thought to be positioning himself for a presidential run in August. 

Erdogan has promised a thorough investigation of the accident, but drew criticism for comments Wednesday in which he invoked mine disasters in other countries, some of them more than a century earlier, and said such accidents were "the nature of the work."

President Abdullah Gul, Erdogan's AKP colleague who was once a close political ally, received a far less hostile welcome when he visited the site on Thursday. "I feel the pain of all of you," he told rescuers and relatives, urging Turks to pull together in the face of a national tragedy.
But the government probably faces tough scrutiny of its role.

"The government and the ruling party ... ignored the warnings about the Soma mines," Murat Yetkin wrote in a commentary for Thursday's editions of the Hurriyet newspaper. The miners, he said, "paid the price with their lives."

Special correspondent Glen Johnson contributed from Gaziantep, Turkey.