Soma, Reuters—A fire broke out on Saturday in part of a mine where nearly 300 miners were killed in Turkey’s worst industrial disaster, hindering efforts to find up to three remaining workers believed to be still underground, the energy minister said.
The bodies of 15 miners were retrieved overnight, bringing the death toll to 299, and as many as three workers were still inside, Taner Yıldız told reporters at the site. They were unlikely to be alive, four days after an initial fire sent deadly carbon monoxide coursing through the mine.
“It is a localized fire, but it is important and we have to take note of it,” Yıldız said. “Naturally until it is brought under control we can’t do anything about up to three workers [believed still there].”
The disaster triggered angry protests across Turkey, aimed at mine owners accused of ignoring safety for profit, and at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, seen as too close to industry bosses and insensitive in its reaction to the tragedy.
Erdoğan has presided over a decade of rapid economic growth
but worker safety standards have failed to keep pace, leaving Turkey with one of the world’s worst industrial accident records.
The frustrations boiled over in Soma on Friday as riot police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse several thousand protesters.
Overnight, demonstrators clashes with police in the western port city of İzmir, some setting up makeshift barricades and throwing stones and fireworks aimed at the police, Hurriyet newspaper reported. Some 40 people were detained.
There were also protests in Istanbul. Some residents in the city banged pots and pans from their windows, an act which was a feature of last summer’s nationwide anti-government unrest.
The police intervention in Soma could add to public anger towards Erdoğan. He survived mass demonstrations and a corruption probe into his government over the past year to remain Turkey’s dominant politician, but now risks alienating conservative, working-class voters that form his party’s base.
There was wide media coverage of footage apparently showing Erdoğan slapping a man as locals jeered his entourage when he visited Soma this week. The man, Taner Kurucan, said Erdoğan had slapped him and told Kanal D TV he was then beaten by the prime minister’s bodyguards.
His adviser Yalçın Akdoğan accused “gang members” of provoking Erdoğan’s team as he went to meet mourning families. Anger was intensified by a photograph of an Erdoğan aide kicking a protester held down by police special forces.
A group of students at the Istanbul Technical University occupied the mining faculty on Friday evening in protest at links between the university and the company which operates the mine—Soma Holding, the private Doğan news agency reported.
They vowed to continue their protest until various demands were met, including a guarantee that the university’s links with the company were cut and the resignation of an academic there who said those who died from carbon monoxide poisoning “died sweetly.” He has apologized for his comment.
The mining company managers held a fractious news conference on Friday where they said an unexplained build-up of heat was thought to have led part of the mine to collapse, fanning a blaze which spread rapidly more than two km under the surface.
Opponents of Erdoğan blame the government for privatizing leases at previously state-controlled mines, turning them over to politically-connected businessmen who they say may have skimped on safety to maximize profit.
Questioned on links between Soma Holding executives and Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a mine executive confirmed his wife was a local AKP politician. Company chairman Alp Gürkan said he had never met the prime minister before this week.
The AKP said the formerly state-run mine at Soma, 300 miles (480 kilometers) southwest of Istanbul, had been inspected 11 times over the past five years. It denied any suggestion of loopholes in mining safety regulations.