PM's aide pictured kicking mine blast town protester
Premier faces wave of anger after 282 deaths in pit tragedy
Published 16/05/2014 | 02:30
Turkey's leaders are facing a wave of anger with calls for high-level resignations and violent clashes on the streets as the country's worst mine disaster claimed at least 282 lives.
Fury erupted across the country after pictures emerged of a close aide to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, assaulting a man during protests on Wednesday in Soma, the mining town where almost 300 people lost their lives underground.
Mr Erdogan, who has led Turkey for 11 years, had been visibly shocked by the hostile reaction in Soma when he was forced to take refuge at a supermarket from grieving relatives, incensed that he said coal mine accidents were "ordinary".
Video published in Turkey showed scuffles around the prime minister and one of his staff, Yusuf Yerkel, kicking a man being held down by paramilitary police.
Mr Yerkel, who was a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 2010, made no comment yesterday.
The prime minister's office distanced itself from the incident, with one official saying the issue was Mr Yerkel's "own personal matter."
Turkey's president Abdullah Gul cancelled a visit to China to travel to Soma but he too was on the receiving end of a backlash with relatives jeering that his visit was interrupting the rescue services.
President Gul described the events in Soma as "a huge disaster". "The pain is felt by us all," he said.
Turkey's largest labour union called a nationwide strike in protest at conditions in the mines, which they say have deteriorated since a privatisation programme was introduced by the Erdogan government. Several thousand people demonstrated peacefully in Istanbul, holding banners with slogans including: "It is not an accident, it is not fate, it is murder" and "Our hearts are burning in Soma".
Some staged a sit-down protest at police lines. Police fired water cannon to break up a demonstration in Izmir, the nearest large city to Soma, and there were reports of protests in the southern cities of Mersin and Antalya.
Around a thousand people from various trade unions gathered in Ankara to march on the Labour Ministry, some wearing miners' helmets and waving banners showing the image of Che Guevara. Others targeted Mr Erdogan's ruling AK Party, holding banners that read "The fires of Soma will burn AKP," and "AKP murderers".
The party faced accusations that it had dismissed a parliamentary motion submitted by the opposition Republican People's Party to investigate safety in the Soma mines.
A day earlier Mr Erdogan said mining accidents were "ordinary things", as he reeled off examples from 19th-century Britain, including the collapse of Hartley Pit in 1862.
The remarks revived anger at Mr Erdogan's failure to tackle the poor safety record of the Turkish mining industry.
Hostility to the prime minister from working-class heartlands added to the list of enemies the long-serving Islamist has stacked up. Middle-class protests last year were directed against the government's close links to property developers. Secularists believe the prime minister has reintroduced a religious bias that infringes on personal freedom.
Mr Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to become Turkey's first popularly elected president.
But the drive to consolidate his position has reinforced fears that he is playing by winner takes all rules ill-suited to an emerging democracy.
"The incident with this adviser is one of many things coming together that paints a picture of a Turkey that is now clearly a country that is turning illiberal, if not authoritarian," said a former Western diplomat who served in Turkey.
However, his party swept local elections in March despite a corruption scandal that forced him to dismiss four government ministers in December and later also implicated him and family members. He denies corruption, calling the allegations part of a plot to bring his government down.
Separately Taner Yildiz, Turkey's energy minister, said he would resign if reports that there was a 15-year-old miner among the dead proved true.
Mr Yildiz said the search for survivors had been hampered by a fire that had spread to a conveyor system. (© Daily Telegraph, London)