Anger at the deadly mine explosion in Turkey spread across the country on Thursday as thousands of workers joined a protest strike, demonstrators clashed with security forces, and families began to bury scores of men killed in the disaster.
As the death toll at the Soma coalmine pushed towards 300, with hopes extinguished for at least 100 more miners thought to be trapped deep in the pit, fury was directed at the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – and fuelled by pictures of one of his aides violently assaulting a protester, and claims that Erdoğan himself had struck a teenage girl.
The president, Abdullah Gül, visiting the area, described Tuesday’s explosion as “a huge disaster”, adding: “The pain is felt by all”. But despite more restraint among relatives and protesters in Soma than during the prime minister’s visit a day earlier, Gül was still heckled by crowds.
The first funerals for victims were held as labourers continued to dig rows of graves in a cemetery near the mine. Women with pictures of victims pinned to their clothing swayed, wailed and sang as coffins were lowered into the graves.
Some mourners said they had spent their lives fearing a catastrophic incident at the mine. “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, a neighbour of one of the victims and whose father and husband are both miners.
Rescue teams recovered another eight victims on Thursday, raising the death toll to 282, with 142 people still unaccounted for, according to government figures. No miner has been brought out alive since dawn on Wednesday.
The energy minister, Taner Yıldız, said a fire inside the mine was dying down, raising hopes that rescuers would soon be able to speed up their search for the missing.
Turkey’s worst ever mining disaster triggered a protest strike and skirmishes across the country, and threatened to derail Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions.
He had been expected to announce imminently his candidacy for presidential elections in August, but his insensitivity over the mine explosion may damage his prospects.
During a visit to Soma on Wednesday, the prime minister claimed that accidents were inevitable in the mining industry, citing 19th-century incidents in Britain as examples.
Hostility towards Erdoğan was evident in a large crowd which jostled the visibly shaken prime minister and his aides amid jeers, whistles and chants.
He was forced to take refuge in a supermarket where, according to some accounts in the Turkish media, he struck a teenage girl who called him a murderer. A government official denied the allegation.
Yusef Yerkel, one of his aides, was photographed taking a running kick at a protester who was pinned to the ground by two soldiers. He kicked the man three or four times, according to Turkish media.
The images caused a furious response on social media and could fuel anti-government protests. Yerkel promised to explain the incident, but no statement had been made after 24 hours.
Mourners have held mass funerals in Turkey for more than 280 workers killed in the nation’s worst industrial accident, as citizens react with violent protests.
Loudspeakers broadcast the names of the dead as rows of graves were filled in the mining town of Soma on Thursday.
As family members of dead or missing miners grieved, mourning turned to anger for thousands who turned out to violent protests, one of which saw a government official assault a protester.
The protesters have accused the government and the company that runs the mine of putting profits ahead of safety, and not responding quickly enough to rescue trapped workers.
Rescuers were still trying to reach parts of the coal mine in Soma, 480 km south-west of Istanbul, more than 48 hours after fire knocked out power and shut down the ventilation shafts and elevators, trapping hundreds underground.
At least 283 people have been confirmed dead, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning, and hopes of rescuing any more of around 100 workers still thought to be inside are fading.
Turkish official attacks protester
Anger has swept Turkey, a country that experienced a decade of rapid economic growth under current prime minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted government, but still suffers from one of the world’s worst records of workplace safety.
Furious residents heckled Mr Erdogan on Wednesday as he toured Soma, angry at what they see as the government’s cosiness with mining tycoons, and its failure to ensure safety and a lack of information on the rescue effort.
Access to the mine entrance was blocked by paramilitary police roadblocks several kilometres away for a visit by president Abdullah Gul on Thursday.
Mr Erdogan, who announced three days of national mourning from Tuesday, expressed regret for the disaster but said such accidents were not uncommon, and turned defensive when asked if sufficient precautions had been in place.
Turkish newspaper Radikal published an amateur video clip on its website appearing to show Erdogan saying “come here and jeer at me” as he walked through a hostile crowd in the town.
An image of one of his deputy personal assistants, Yusuf Yerkel, kicking a protester as he was wrestled to the ground by armed special forces officers has gone viral on social media and has done little to help the prime minister’s image.
Colleagues in Mr Erdogan’s office defended Mr Yerkel, saying the protester had travelled to Soma deliberately to cause trouble.
London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies, where Mr Yerkel once studied, issued a statement saying it had no association with him after being besieged with enquiries.
“I am sad I was not able to maintain my composure despite all the provocations, the insults and attacks to which I was exposed on that day,” Mr Yerkel said in a statement.
Prime Minister ‘out of touch’ with protesters
Mr Erdogan, who is expected to stand in a presidential election in August, has weathered mass protests and a corruption scandal over the past year.
While his Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP) dominated local polls in March despite the political turbulence, his opponents say he is a leader increasingly out of touch and his handling of a disaster is hitting the sort of working class, conservative community which makes up the core of his supporter base.
President Gul, a co-founder of Erdogan’s party but known for a less abrasive style, struck a more conciliatory tone in response to the accident, saying Turkey needed to review regulations to bring them in line with other countries.
“The pain of every single person is the pain of all of us,” he said.
“Such suffering should not be happening. Just like the advanced countries which no longer go through this, we have to re-evaluate our rules and take all the necessary measures.”
Four of Turkey’s labour unions called for a national one-day strike, furious at what they see as a sharp deterioration in working conditions since formerly state-run mines, including the one in Soma, were leased to private firms.
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 protesters staged a sit-down protest in front of police lines and police fired water cannons to break up a demonstration in Izmir, the nearest large city to Soma, while 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.
Protesters chanted “the fires of Soma will burn AKP,” and “AKP murderers” as police looked on.
16 May 2014