Turkish police fired water cannon and tear gas Friday to disperse several thousand protesters in the town of Soma, where close to 300 people died in the country's worst ever mining disaster this week.
Days after Tuesday’s deadly underground fire in a western Turkey coal mine, government and mining company officials also defended their efforts to ensure mining safety, while critics decried what they consider lax government regulation based on cozy business relationships.
In Soma, people scattered into side streets as police intervened on a commercial street in the town lined with shops and banks as well as the offices of the local government and labor union, a witness told Reuters.
“No coal can warm the children of fathers who died in the mine,'' read one hand-written sign. Protesters had been trying to march toward a statue honoring miners in the town’s center when police blocked the route.
Earlier Friday, at a Soma Holding Co. news conference, owner Alp Gurkan said he had spent his own money to improve safety conditions at the mine.
“I am hurting inside,” Gurkan said.
Though most of the 787 workers inside had oxygen masks, officials said, carbon monoxide poisoning claimed many lives. The fire has continued to burn for days, hampering rescue and recovery efforts. Up to 18 miners remain missing.
During the tense news conference, Gurkan said the mine had “top-level miners, accepted as being the most trustworthy and organized.” But he acknowledged the mine had shut down its sole safety chamber – with capacity for up to 500 miners and equipped with its own oxygen supply – while constructing another.
Gurkan said Soma Holding had no legal obligation to install a chamber. Observers say that’s likely to amplify criticism of government safety standards.
Anger has swept through Turkey, with protests partly directed at mine owners accused of putting profit over safety, and partly at Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, seen as too cozy with industry tycoons and too lax in enforcing regulations.
Vedat Unal, secretary-general of Turkey’s Miners Union, said the Soma mine accident amounted to an act of murder, Bloomberg reported Friday. “This can’t be explained with examples from the 19th century,” Unal said by phone from Soma. “The state must adopt and enforce better health and safety measures.”
Kemal Ozkan, assistant general secretary for the Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union, told VOA’s Turkish Service that the mining disaster occurred mainly because Turkey lacks “real safety practices” and has “no coherent policies” or sufficient regulatory framework.
The website of the international organization – representing 50 million mining, energy and manufacturing workers – said in a post earlier this week that “Turkey has possibly the worst safety record in terms of mining accidents and explosions in Europe and the third worst one in the world.”
Officials promise action
On Thursday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Soma and vowed to do whatever is necessary to prevent future mining disasters. On Friday, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said anyone found to have been negligent about safety at the mine would be punished.
"If they are at fault, no tolerance will be shown regardless of whether they are from the public or private sector," Yildiz said.
Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of Erdogan's ruling party, also defended the government's record.
"We have no inspection and supervision problem," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. "This mine was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009."
Some mine workers took a different view.
“The inspections were carried out with a week's notice from Ankara and we were instructed to get ready,'' said one miner in Soma who gave his name as Ramazan, reluctant to identify himself further for fear of retribution by his employer.
“It was like putting makeup on the mine.''
Angered by seeming indifference
Turkish citizens were outraged after newspapers printed a photo of an aide to the prime minister kicking a man protesting the mine disaster who was being held on the ground by police.
The incident happened Wednesday when Erdogan visited Soma to meet mourning families. A spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party said there was no visual evidence of Erdogan striking anyone, while his adviser Yalcin Akdogan, writing in the Star newspaper, accused “gang members” of provoking the prime minister's team.
The prime minister already was under fire for his seeming indifference to the disaster. He’d called mining accidents "ordinary things,” but added the entire country is in pain and promised a thorough investigation.
Carried out dead co-workers
Sezai Arabektasoglu, 36, was working in a neighboring Soma-owned mine when the fire broke out. Hours later, he joined in a team of would-be rescuers that instead wound up retrieving almost 60 bodies, he told VOI’s Turkish Service.
“Some of the dead are my co-workers, who I worked [with] for the past three years, sipped tea together,” Arabektasoglu said. “Except for a few, I did not recognize the bodies as I was carrying them to the surface. They worked in my shift.
“It hurts more when those killed” are acquaintances, Arabektasoglu added.
In Soma, much of the population either works in or has relatives employed by the mining industry.
Some contend the government is too cozy with industry.
At the news conference, questioned about the relationship between Soma Holding executives and Erdogan's AK Party, Gurkan said he had never met the prime minister before this week.
“I shook hands with him for the first time in my life here ... I don't know him at all and have never talked to him. There's not the slightest relationship between us,'' he said.
‘Glowing coal falling’
Soma Holding’s officials were reluctant to accept blame. Plant manager Akin Celik said there was no question of negligence on the company’s part. Gurkan, the chairman, said he would wait for the results of an inquiry led by the Labor Ministry, which is responsible for workplace safety standards.
“If there is neglect within the operations, a mistake, a shortcoming, I'll follow up legally to ensure those responsible are punished,'' Gurkan said, adding a foundation would probably be established to pay compensation to the families of the dead.
Some initial reports suggested a fire at an electrical substation in the mine had knocked out power and shut down the ventilation shafts and elevators, but Ramazan Dogru, the mine’s general manager, said that didn’t seem to be the case.
“What we think happened is that there was a heating up which was not possible to detect,” he said. “... The heated-up area collapsed with pieces of glowing coal falling, causing the fire to quickly spread. It has nothing to do with the sub-station.”
Celik, the plant manager, said intense smoke blocked the miners' way out, with visibility dropping to zero.
"Because of the fire escalating so quickly, people were not even able to move 20 meters," he said, pointing on a diagram to an escape route he said the trapped miners had been unable to reach.
Efforts to pump clean air into the mine had helped to save around 100 workers, Soma leaders said. The company said 122 miners had been hospitalized and another 363 had either escaped on their own or were helped to safety.
Thousands gathered after noon prayers Thursday for mass funerals at Soma's main cemetery, where more than 100 tightly packed graves have been newly dug. In Soma, much of the population either works in or has relatives employed by the mining industry.
A police water cannon is used against anti-government protesters in Soma, Turkey, May 16, 2014.
Hundreds of protesters took part in a march against the government. Some protesters chanted slogans near a monument for the town's miners, Soma, May 16, 2014.
A police water cannon is used against anti-government protesters in Soma, May 16, 2014.
Muslims pray in Soma, May 16, 2014.
People mourn at the grave of a miner after a burial service, in Soma, May 15, 2014.
Miners and members of rescue services wait outside a coal mine in Soma, May 15, 2014.
People prepare graves for the coal mine disaster victims in Soma, May 15, 2014.
Members of the rescue team sit outside the coal mine in Soma, May 15, 2014.
Relatives of the miners wait near the coal mine where disaster struck, Soma, May 15, 2014.
A young man waits outside the coal mine in Soma, May 15, 2014.
A protester is kicked by Yusuf Yerkel, advisor to Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, as Special Forces police officers detain him during a protest against Mr. Erdogan's visit to Soma, May 14, 2014.