Sunday 23 November 2014

Turkish mine death toll nears 300

Published 15/05/2014 | 05:42

Miners and members of the rescue services wait outside a coal mine in Soma, western Turkey (AP)
Miners and members of the rescue services wait outside a coal mine in Soma, western Turkey (AP)
People attack the offices of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's justice and development party during his visit to the coal mine in Soma, Turkey (AP)
People wait outside a coal mine in Soma, Turkey, where hundreds of workers died (AP)
Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is surrounded by security members as he visits the coal mine in Soma (AP)
A woman at the grave of a mine accident victim in Soma (AP)
Relatives of miners wait near a coal mine in Soma, Turkey (AP)

Rescue teams have recovered more bodies from a coal mine in western Turkey, raising the death toll in the country's worst mining accident to 282, officials said.

The disaster has hit Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's presidential ambitions after angry crowds shouted abuse at him during a visit to the area.

Hundreds of people have been attending funerals for the victims in the town of Soma, with dozens of graves dug for the bodies.

Although 363 miners were rescued, some 150 more remain missing. No miner has been brought out alive since early on Wednesday.

Mourners at the funerals said they spent their lives fearing something like this.

"The wives of the miners kiss their husbands in the morning. When they come back, even if they are five minutes late, everyone starts calling. You never know what is going to happen," said Gulizar Donmez, 45, the daughter and wife of a miner and neighbour of one of the victims.

Mr Erdogan, who is expected to announce his candidacy for presidential elections in August, was forced to take refuge at a supermarket during his visit to the area on Wednesday after angry crowds called him a murderer and thief and clashed with police.

Turkish newspapers printed photographs they said were of an Erdogan aide kicking a protester who was on the ground and being held by special forces police during the scuffles.

Mr Erdogan had earlier downplayed the disaster, calling mining accidents "ordinary things" that also occur in many other countries, after giving examples of 19th-century mine accidents in Britain.

Mr Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to become Turkey's first popularly elected president.

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. Mr Erdogan denies corruption, calling the allegations part of a plot to bring his government down.

Protests broke out in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities over the deaths and poor safety conditions at mines around the country. Turk-Is, Turkey's largest trade union confederation representing some 800,000 workers, joined a one-day strike by other unions to demand better conditions for workers.

Workers in the mining region of Zonguldak, obeying the strike, gathered in front of a pit but did not enter it. In Istanbul, a group chanted anti-government slogans and carried a large banner that read: "It's not an accident, it's murder."

With hopes for the missing miners fading, energy minister Taner Yildiz told reporters that rescue efforts were focusing on two areas inside the mine.

Rescue operations have been suspended several times as burning coal inside created toxic fumes and too-risky conditions for the rescue teams.

"We believe that we still have brothers in two areas that we still have not been able to reach," Mr Yildiz said. He did not say whether authorities believed they were dead.

The government has said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of the explosion on Tuesday. Scores of those rescued suffered injuries.

The death toll has topped a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near Turkey's Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

Authorities said this week's disaster followed an explosion and fire at a power distribution unit, and most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mr Erdogan promised the tragedy would be investigated to its "smallest detail" and that "no negligence will be ignored".

One newspaper reported that a group of 15 prosecutors has been assigned to investigate the accident.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.

The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll.

Turkey's labour and social security ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, when no safety violations were detected.

But the country's main opposition party said Mr Erdogan's ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at the mines around Soma.

Press Association

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