274 dead in Turkey mine disaster

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Rescue workers coated in grime trudged repeatedly out of a coal mine with stretchers of bodies that swelled the death toll to 274 – the worst such disaster in Turkish history.

Hopes faded for 150 others still trapped deep underground in smouldering tunnels filled with toxic gases.

Anti-government protests broke out in the mining town of Soma, as well as Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan heckled as he tried to show concern.

Protesters shouted “Murderer!” and “Thief!” and Mr Erdogan was forced to seek refuge in a supermarket, surrounded by police.

The display of anger could have significant repercussions for the Turkish leader, who is widely expected to run for president in the August election, although he has not yet announced his candidacy.

Tensions were high as hundreds of relatives and miners jostled outside the mine’s entrance yesterday, waiting for news amid a heavy police presence.

Rows of women wailed uncontrollably and men knelt sobbing or simply stared in disbelief as rescue workers removed body after body.

One elderly man wearing a prayer cap wailed after he recognised one of the dead, and police had to restrain him from climbing into an ambulance with the body.

An injured rescue worker who emerged alive was whisked away on a stretcher to the cheers of onlookers.

Energy minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion – 274 died and 363 were rescued, including scores who were injured.

The death toll topped a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near Turkey’s Black Sea port of Zonguldak. It also left 150 miners still unaccounted for.

Mr Yildiz said rescue workers were trying to reach the bodies of up to 22 people trapped in one zone. Some of the workers were 1,400 feet deep inside the mine, he said.

Rescue operations were halted for several hours because high gas concentrations in the mine needed to be cleared.

The last miner rescued alive emerged from the mine around dawn and the first burials took place later yesterday.

Giza Nergiz, a 28-year-old English teacher, said some of the victims had complained about safety at the mine.

“We buried three of our high school friends today,” she said. “A lot of people were complaining about safety, but nobody (in management) was doing anything about it.”

Mr Erdogan declared three days of national mourning and postponed a trip to Albania to visit the mine in Soma, 155 miles south of Istanbul. He warned that some radical groups would try to use the disaster to discredit his government.

“Our hope is that, God willing, they will be brought out,” Mr Erdogan said of those still trapped. “That is what we are waiting for.”

Yet his efforts to show compassion – discussing rescue operations with authorities, walking near the mine entrance, trying to comfort two crying women – did not always go over well.

At a news conference, he tried to deflect a question about who was responsible for the disaster, saying: “These types of things in mines happen all the time.

“These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called ‘work accident’… It happens in other work places, too. It happened here. It’s in its nature. It’s not possible for there to be no accidents in mines. Of course we were deeply pained by the extent here.”

In the industrial town, where coal mining has been the main industry for decades, Mr Erdogan’s ties to mining leaders were noted.

Residents said the wife of the Soma mine’s boss works for Mr Erdogan’s party and the boss himself had left town.

“They are trying to look like they care, but they are not helping anyone. There is no urgency, even now. People blame Tayyip,” Nergiz said.

In central Soma, protesters, most in their teens and 20s, faced off against riot police in front of the ruling NKP party headquarters, smashing its windows with rocks.

“Our prime minister is a dictator,” said 16-year-old Melih Atik. “Neither the government nor the company took precautions in the mine, and everyone knows that’s why this happened.”

In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of mine owner Soma Komur Isletmeleri.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to break up a group who tried to march to the city’s Taksim Square to denounce poor safety conditions.

Police also dispersed a group marching to the energy ministry in Ankara to protest against the deaths.

Fences were erected and police stood guard outside Soma’s hospital, where scores of the injured were being treated. Some residents said the men were being pressured by the mining company not to talk about the blast.

Authorities said the disaster followed an explosion and fire at a power distribution unit and most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Tuesday’s explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which probably raised the casualty toll.

The labour and social security ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, and that 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.

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