Middle East

Protesters clash with police at turkey mine blast site

Family members at the grave of a victim of a mine accident, in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. A Turkish mining company defended its safety record Friday, four days after over 250 people died in an underground blaze at its coal mine in western Turkey. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

SOMA, turkey: Turkish riot police fired tear gas Friday at thousands of protesters at the scene of a disaster that killed nearly 300 miners, as the government faced a worsening political backlash.

Police used tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets to disperse demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans in the western town of Soma, where at least 284 people died in a blast at a coal mine this week

Some protesters hurled stones at the police, according to AFP reporters on the ground. At least five people including two police were wounded and there were reports of some arrests.

The mine tragedy, turkey's worst ever industrial accident, has sparked a wave of fury against the government ahead of August presidential elections which the embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been tipped to win.

Erdogan has denied any government culpability in the face of opposition lawmakers' claims that they raised concerns over safety at the Soma mine in parliament just weeks before the disaster.

But his comment that mining accidents are in "the nature of the business" have sparked furious accusations of indifference to the victims' plight.

With the government warning that the toll from the blast would likely top 300, Erdogan faced fresh criticism after video emerged of him apparently shouting an anti-Israel slur at angry protesters during a visit Wednesday to the disaster site.

"Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?" Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heard yelling at a protester in video footage circulated by the opposition Sozcu newspaper that AFP has not been able to authenticate.

Erdogan was booed when he visited the disaster site and had to take refuge in a shop from an angry crowd shouting "prime minister, resign!".

The premier, known for his outbursts of anger, was accused of hitting a relative of one of the dead miners during the visit -- a charge that circulated widely in opposition media despite being denied by his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Photographs of Erdogan aide Yusuf Yerkel kicking a protester also sparked outrage on social media. 

Yerkel later apologised, saying he was "not able to keep my calm in the face of all provocations, insults and attacks".

Mine explosions and cave-ins are a frequent occurrence in turkey, but Tuesday's disaster -- one of the deadliest in modern history -- has given fresh impetus to public anger against the government after a corruption scandal implicating Erdogan's family and key allies.

Images of police firing tear gas and water cannon at thousands of protesters in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir have also revived memories of nationwide anti-government protests in 2013.

Mine operator Soma Komur on Friday vehemently denied any allegations of negligence.

"There is no negligence on our part," the company's general director Akin Celik told reporters at a press conference.

"We have all worked very hard. I have not seen such an incident in 20 years."

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said 787 people were inside the mine when the blast hit, causing a fire that is still raging out of control, with 363 evacuated and 18 still unaccounted for. Most of the victims died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

However, there is widespread scepticism about the government figures, and earlier reports from rescue workers at the scene suggested the toll could be higher. 

Soma Komur executives declined to comment on the cause of the accident pending an expert report.

General manager Ramazan Dogru, who is married to an AKP member, denied allegations that a transformer exploded, saying the disaster was a "coal dust explosion".

US President Barack Obama called his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul on Friday to offer his condolences over the disaster, which has added to the huge political pressure on Erdogan.

"Protests are an indicator of growing polarisation in turkey," said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. 

"Today they are targeting the mine catastrophe and tomorrow they will be against something else."

The prime minister's Islamic-rooted AKP party emerged triumphant from March 30 local elections despite a corruption scandal.

But his government now stands accused of failing to heed the warning signs of a possible disaster in Soma, a key centre for lignite coal mining that has suffered accidents in the past.

Ozgur Ozel, a local lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said his request to investigate work-related accidents at coalmines in Soma had been turned down by the ruling party in parliament.

The government needs to "demonstrate the political will to comply with EU standards on work health and work safety in order for this catastrophe not to become a political minefield," Ulgen told AFP. 

The ruling party submitted Friday a proposal for parliamentary inquiry into the mine blast, and the CHP has mounted pressure on the government to ratify the International Labour Organization's (ILO) convention on mine safety.

turkey's ministry of labour and social security said the Soma mine had been inspected eight times in the last four years, most recently on March 17, and was found to comply with safety regulations.





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