The Guardian: Turkey swept by protests as anger grows over fatal mine explosion

Miners and rescue workers await the arrival of Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, outside the mine in Soma. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Miners and rescue workers await the arrival of Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, outside the mine in Soma. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

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.

Young people protest outside the mayor's office in Soma, calling the Turkish government “liars”. Photograph: Bradley Secker/Demotix/Corbi

Young people protest outside the mayor’s office in Soma, calling the Turkish government “liars”. Photograph: Bradley Secker/Demotix/Corbi

Protests over the mining deaths erupted in other Turkish cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, İzmir and Zonguldak.

Turkish trade unions held a one-day strike over safety standards in the mining industry. Security forces deployed tear gas and water canon against around 20,000 protesters in İzmir.

In Istanbul, a group chanted anti-government slogans and carried a large banner that read: “It’s not an accident, it’s murder.” In Soma protesters chanted: “Soma’s coal will burn the government” and “Tayyip the murderer”.

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

The government has said that 787 people were inside the coalmine at the time of the explosion and that 383 had been rescued, many with injuries. The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which probably raised the casualty toll.

It is the country’s most deadly mining accident, topping a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Erdoğan promised that the tragedy would be investigated to its “smallest detail” and that “no negligence will be ignored”. The Hürriyet newspaper reported that a team of 15 prosecutors has been assigned to investigate the accident.

16 May 2014