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Anger mounts in Turkey as country mourns mine workers

Unions stage protest over workplace safety as excavators dig mass graves in Soma

Rescue teams recovered eight more victims of Turkey's worst mining accident on Thursday, raising the death toll to 284 in a disaster that has thrown Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's presidential ambitions off stride and set off a day of union action across the country. 

Anger has swept across Turkey — a country that has boasted a decade of rapid economic growth under Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government but that still suffers from one of the world's worst workplace safety standards — over the diasaster at the coal mine in Soma, 155 miles south of Istanbul. Several unions, including the country's largest trade union, joined a one-day strike in the name of the mine victims.

Although 363 miners were rescued, some 150 more have not been accounted for. No miner has been brought out alive since early Wednesday. The government has said 787 people were inside the mine at the time of Tuesday's explosion. Scores of those rescued suffered injuries.

Rescuers, despite fading hopes, are still trying to reach parts of the mine to locate those still unaccounted for almost 48 hours after Tuesday's explosion and fire. Rescue operations have been suspended several times as burning coal inside created toxic fumes and too-risky conditions for the rescue teams.

"We believe that we still have brothers in two areas that we still have not been able to reach," said Energy Minister Taner Yildiz. He did not say whether authorities believed they were dead.

Hundreds of people were attending funerals for the victims and dozens of graves have been dug, ready to receive the bodies. Mourners at the funerals said they spent their lives fearing something like this.

"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, the daughter and wife of a miner and neighbor of one of the victims.

The situation in the town was “very depressing,” Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons said, reporting from Soma. 

Even as the rescue and recovery efforts continue, Simmons reported that no one is really sure how many miners remain underneath the ground, despite an estimate of 150. Nevertheless, the death toll is likely to rise into the 300s, as funerals continue taking place across districts in Soma. 

‘It’s murder’

Loudspeakers in Soma broadcast the names of the dead and excavators dug mass graves in the close-knit town Thursday, while protesters gathered in major cities as grief turned to anger.

Protests broke out in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities over the deaths and poor safety conditions at mines around the country. Turk-Is, Turkey's largest trade union confederation, representing some 800,000 workers, joined a one-day strike by other unions to demand better conditions for workers.

Workers in the mining region of Zonguldak, obeying the strike, gathered in front of a pit but did not enter it. In Istanbul, a group chanted anti-government slogans and carried a large banner that read: "It's not an accident, it's murder."

Furious residents heckled Erdogan and jostled his entourage on Wednesday, angry at what they see as the government's coziness with mining tycoons, its failure to ensure safety and a lack of information on the rescue effort.

Erdogan, who is expected to soon announce his candidacy for the presidential election in August, was forced to take refuge at a supermarket during his visit to the area Wednesday after angry crowds called him a “murderer” and “thief” and clashed with police. Turkish newspapers Cumhuriyet, Milliyet and others on Thursday printed photographs they said were of an Erdogan aide kicking a protester who was on the ground and being held by special forces police during the scuffles. The papers identified the aide as Yusuf Yerkel.

While Erdogan declared three days of national mourning and postponed a trip to Albania to visit the mine, he warned that some radical groups would try to use the disaster to discredit his government.

"Our hope is that, God willing, they will be brought out," Erdogan said of those still trapped. "That is what we are waiting for."

Yet his efforts to show compassion — discussing rescue operations with authorities, walking near the mine entrance, trying to comfort two crying women — did not go over well.

At a news conference, he tried to deflect a question about who was responsible for the disaster, saying: "These types of things in mines happen all the time.

"These are ordinary things. There is a thing in literature called 'work accident' ... It happens in other workplaces, too," Erdogan said. "It happened here. It's in its nature. It's not possible for there to be no accidents in mines. Of course we were deeply pained by the extent here."

The death toll in the Soma mine incident has topped a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near Turkey's Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

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

Erdogan promised the tragedy would be investigated to its "smallest detail" and that "no negligence will be ignored." Hurriyet newspaper reported Thursday that a group of 15 prosecutors has been assigned to investigate the accident.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey. Tuesday's explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which likely raised the casualty toll.

Turkey's Labor and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, most recently in March, when no safety violations were detected. But the country's main opposition party said Erdogan's ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold a parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at the mines around Soma.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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