Protesters, police clash in Turkey amid mounting questions in mine fire

Story highlights

  • At least 298 have died as a result of the coal mine fire, according to disaster officials
  • Mine owner says the Soma site met the standards required by Turkish law
  • Ruling party spokesman says PM's aide kicked a protester after he was attacked by him
  • 'Remember your dead,' chant protesters angry over mine response

Police in Soma, Turkey, used tear gas, plastic pellets and a water cannon Friday on protesters angry over the government's response to a coal mine fire that killed at least 298 people.

Protesters chanting "Don't sleep, Soma, remember your dead!" coursed through city streets a few miles from the disaster site, trying to reach a statue honoring miners.

The clash came two days after a photograph surfaced of an aide to Turkey's Prime Minister kicking a protester, an image that quickly became a symbol of the anger felt by many against the government, and amid mounting questions over safety practices at the mine. The complex exploded into fire for unknown reasons Tuesday -- trapping many miners deep underground.

Among other issues, mine officials indicated Friday that workers may not have had access to an emergency refuge where they could have sheltered from the flames and choking fumes.

Site manager Akin Celik told reporters that the mine had closed one emergency refuge when excavation work moved to a lower area. Miners were building, but had not finished, a new safety chamber at the lower level, he said.

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The owner of the company, Alp Gurman, said the mine met the highest standards laid out by the law in Turkey. The company, he said, had no legal obligation to build safety chambers.

Early Satuday, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Coordination Directorate said the number of dead in the mining disaster is now 298. It wasn't immediately clear how many miners may still be inside; authorities earlier said 18 remained trapped.

If and when they are found, hopes have dwindled that they'll be alive. Rescue workers haven't found anyone alive since Wednesday.

Smoke and fumes were still hindering search and recovery efforts Friday, officials said.

Authorities have previously said the fire was sparked by a transformer explosion, but Celik told reporters Friday that the cause of the fire was still unknown.

Asked what had happened, he said, "We don't know either. Never seen anything like this before. We are trying to find out."

Kicking a protester

Friday's clashes are likely to further anger Soma residents already seething over the disaster and the treatment of the protester kicked by Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The man, detained by special forces, can be seen lying on the ground as the suited adviser to Erdogan appears to aim a kick at him.

The shocking image outraged many in Turkey, prompting an outpouring of anger on social media, and is seen as symbolizing the increasingly polarizing impact of Erdogan's authority in the country.

Yerkel was quoted by Turkey's semiofficial Anadolu news agency Thursday as saying that he had been deeply saddened by the previous day's events.

"I am sad that I could not keep my calm in the face of all the provocation, insults and attacks that I was subjected to that day," he reportedly said.

In another incident Wednesday, video footage showed a crowd outside a grocery store angrily booing Erdogan. As the Prime Minister entered the crowded store, he appeared to put his arm around the neck of a man who was later identified as a miner.

After the confrontation, the video captured what appeared to be Erdogan's security guards beating the same man to the floor. The miner said later that Erdogan slapped him, possibly by mistake. He wants an apology for the way he was treated by the Prime Minister's staff.

Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, dismissed the grocery store incident and said the image of Yerkel kicking the protester was misleading.

Political bonfire

Besides the anger prompted by the photo, Erdogan's comments Wednesday to relatives of dead and injured miners were seen as highly insensitive and drew scathing criticism.

The Prime Minister glossed over the issue of mine safety, describing the carnage that was suffered as par for the course in the dangerous business.

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As public anger mounted through the evening, hundreds took to the streets in anti-government protests in Istanbul and Ankara, with police answering, in some cases, with water cannons and tear gas.

As Erdogan took a stroll through the city, onlookers showered him with deafening jeers as well as chants of "Resign, Prime Minister!"

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu defended Erdogan in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.

"He was feeling all these pains in his heart," he said. "Everybody knows that our Prime Minister is always with the people, and always feels the pain of the people. Otherwise, he wouldn't get such a high support in eight elections in (the) last 10 years."

But the disaster opened up an old political wound.

Opposition politician Ozgur Ozel from the Manisa region, which includes Soma, filed a proposal in late April to investigate Turkish mines after repeated deadly accidents.

Erdogan's government rejected the proposal. It claimed that the mine, owned by SOMA Komur Isletmeleri A.S., had passed recent inspections.

A Turkish engineers' association criticized mine ventilation and safety equipment this week as being "insufficient and old."

A lack of safety inspections has caused 100 coal mines to be closed in the last three years, according to Turkey's Energy Ministry.

A 'sorrow for the whole Turkish nation'

President Abdullah Gul offered words of comfort as he visited Soma on Thursday, the day after his premier attracted public ire.

The disaster is a "sorrow for the whole Turkish nation," Gul told reporters, and he offered his condolences to the victims' families.

An investigation has begun, Gul said, adding that he was sure this would "shed light" on what regulations are needed. "Whatever is necessary will be done," he said.

Despair, anger, dwindling hope after Turkey coal mine fire