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Fire in Turkish mine delays rescue work, death toll rises to 299

Source: Reuters - Sat, 17 May 2014 09:37 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Up to three miners believed still in mine

* Anti-government protests in major cities

* Wide coverage of confrontation between Erdogan entourage and protesters (Adds protests, details, background)

By Mehmet Emin Caliskan

SOMA, Turkey, May 17 (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 Yildiz 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 localised fire, but it is important and we have to take note of it," Yildiz 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 Tayyip Erdogan's government, seen as too close to industry bosses and insensitive in its reaction to the tragedy.

Erdogan 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 Izmir, 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 Erdogan. 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.

UNIVERSITY SIT-IN

There was wide media coverage of footage apparently showing Erdogan slapping a man as locals jeered his entourage when he visited Soma this week. The man, Taner Kurucan, said Erdogan had slapped him and told Kanal D TV he was then beaten by the prime minister's bodyguards.

His adviser Yalcin Akdogan accused "gang members" of provoking Erdogan's team as he went to meet mourning families. Anger was intensified by a photograph of an Erdogan 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 Dogan 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 die from carbon monoxide poisoning "died sweetly". He has apologised 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 Erdogan blame the government for privatising leases at previously state-controlled mines, turning them over to politically-connected businessmen who they say may have skimped on safety to maximise profit.

Questioned on links between Soma Holding executives and Erdogan's ruling AK Party, a mine executive confirmed his wife was a local AK Party politician. Company chairman Alp Gurkan said he had never met the prime minister before this week.

The AK Party said the formerly state-run mine at Soma, 480 km (300 miles) southwest of Istanbul, had been inspected 11 times over the past five years. It denied any suggestion of loopholes in mining safety regulations. (Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by William Hardy)

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