Mounting anger, protests as Turkey mourns mine workers

More than 280 confirmed dead, toll set to rise

SOMA, Turkey (Reuters) — Loudspeakers broadcast the names of the dead and excavators dug mass graves in this close-knit Turkish mining town on Thursday, while protesters gathered in major cities as grief turned to anger following the country's deadliest industrial disaster.

Rescuers were still trying to reach parts of the coal mine in Soma, 480 km southwest of Istanbul, almost 48 hours after fire knocked out power and shut down the ventilation shafts and elevators, trapping hundreds underground.

At least 282 people have been confirmed dead, mostly from carbon monoxide poisoning, and hopes are fading of pulling out any more alive of the 100 or so still thought to be inside.

Anger has swept a country that has boasted a decade of rapid economic growth under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government but which still suffers from one of the world's worst workplace safety standards.

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

Access to the mine entrance was blocked by paramilitary police roadblocks several kilometres away ahead of a visit by President Abdullah Gul on Thursday, as officers searched cars.

"We came here to share the grief and wait for our friends to come out but we were not allowed. Is the president's pain greater than ours?" asked Emre, an 18-year-old trying to get to the mine who said friends from his village were still trapped.

Erdogan, who announced three days of national mourning from Tuesday, expressed regret for the disaster but said such accidents were not uncommon, and turned defensive when asked if sufficient precautions had been in place.

Newspaper Radikal published an amateur video clip on its website appearing to show Erdogan saying "Come here and boo me" as he walked through a hostile crowd in the town on Wednesday.

A picture of one of his advisers appearing to kick a protester, doing the rounds on social media, did little to help his image. His office was not immediately available to comment.

Out of touch

Erdogan, who is expected to stand in a presidential election in August, has weathered mass protests and a corruption scandal over the past year, and his AK Party dominated local polls in March despite the political turbulence.

But his fractious handling of a disaster hitting the sort of working-class, conservative community which makes up the core of his supporter base is further evidence, his opponents say, that he is a leader increasingly out of touch.

Four of Turkey's labour unions called for a national one-day strike, furious at what they see as a sharp deterioration in working conditions since formerly state-run mines including the one in Soma were leased to private firms.

"Hundreds of our worker brothers in Soma have been left to die from the very start by being forced to work in brutal production processes in order to achieve maximum profits," a statement from the unions said, calling on people to wear black.

Several thousand people staged a sit-down protest in front of police water cannon in Istanbul, holding banners with slogans including "It is not accident, It is not fate, it is murder" and "Our hearts are burning in Soma".

Police fired water cannon to break up a demonstration in Izmir, the nearest large city to Soma, and there were reports of protests in the southern cities of Mersin andAntalya.

Around a thousand people from various trade unions gathered in Ankara to march on the labour ministry, some wearing miners' helmets and waving banners showing the image of Che Guevara.

"The fires of Soma will burn AKP," and "AKP murderers" they chanted, as police looked on.

Close-knit community

Thousands of family members and co-workers have gathered outside the hospital in Soma, where much of the population either works in or has relatives employed by the mining industry, seeking information on their loved ones.

Loudspeakers on street corners used by the local government to announce news, a hangover of the days when Internet connections and mobile phones were less common, broadcast the names of the dead and gave funeral details.

The rescue operation was hampered late on Wednesday as the fire inside the mine continued, making it extremely hazardous for crews to retrieve bodies.

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said the ventilation systems which pump fresh air into the mine had been relocated and the teams were getting ready to go back inside.

The fire broke out during a shift change, leading to uncertainty over the exact number of miners trapped. Yildiz initially said 787 workers had been in the mine, though Erdogan said on Wednesday around 120 were still thought to be trapped.

Turkey's safety record in coal mining has been poor for decades, with its previous worst accident in 1992, when a gas blast killed 263 workers in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.

The mine operator, Soma Komur Isletmeleri, said nearly 450 miners had been rescued and that the deaths were caused by carbon monoxide. It said the cause was not yet clear.

Initial reports suggested an electrical fault caused the blaze but Mehmet Torun, a board member and former head of the Chamber of Mining Engineers who was at the scene, said a disused coal seam had heated up, expelling carbon monoxide through the mine's tunnels and galleries.

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