AFP – Turkish rescue workers were on Saturday battling fires to reach the last two coal miners trapped by the country’s worst-ever industrial disaster that has killed 301 workers and led to a surge of anger over the government response.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said two miners were still thought to be in the collapsed mine, based on information from families, while 485 have either escaped or been rescued since Tuesday’s explosion in the western town of Soma.
“We have identified their locations and will end the rescue operation after retrieving them,” Yildiz told reporters in Soma.
A fire in a nearby part of the mine complex had hampered rescue operations earlier in the day but had been brought under control, he said.
The nationwide trauma over the incident has turned to rage, fuelled by claims of negligence against mine operators and what many see as a heartless response from the government.
A preliminary expert report on the accident, obtained by the Milliyet newspaper, pointed to several safety violations in the mine, including a shortage of carbon monoxide detectors used to alert authorities, and ceilings made of wooden planks instead of metal, which caused the fire to spread quickly.
The report’s authenticity could not be immediately verified.
Mine operator Soma Komur on Friday vehemently denied any negligence.
“We have all worked very hard. I have not seen such an incident in 20 years,” said general director Akin Celik.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the focus of mounting anger for his response, starting with an apparent attempt to downplay the incident by comparing it to mining disasters from 19th century Britain.
There was further outrage on social media after a video emerged of him shouting an anti-Israel slur at a crowd of angry protesters — and apparently hitting one of them.
“Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?” Erdogan is heard yelling at a protester in the footage, which surfaced after one of his advisors was photographed kicking a grieving demonstrator.
Erdogan’s popularity – particularly among poorer, rural communities – has proved largely impervious both to waves of anti-government protests last year and recent allegations of high-level corruption, with his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning a landslide victory in local elections in March.
But the response to the mining disaster may shock even his more loyal supporters, analysts say.
“This time even many of Erdogan’s supporters are feeling sceptical and confused about his response. That’s a new feeling for them. The image of a government advisor kicking a protestor is bound to evoke a sense of revulsion,” Rasit Kaya, professor of political science at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, told AFP.
“It is not something he can easily turn to his advantage. But how much damage will be caused is anyone’s guess,” he said.
Mine explosions and cave-ins are frequent in Turkey, but both the scale and the handling of Tuesday’s disaster stand to weaken Erdogan’s hand ahead of an expected run for the presidency in August.
Turkish police used tear gas, water cannon and plastic bullets to disperse demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans in Soma on Friday.
In Istanbul, police broke up a demonstration by about 150 people who lit candles and lined up mining helmets on the ground to pay tribute to the dead miners.
Students occupied university buildings in the city, holding an all-night vigil in protest at the official response.
Erdogan’s government stands accused of failing to heed warnings about 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.