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By Can Merey and Shabtai Gold, McClatchy Tribune News Service

ISTANBUL — Thousands of people took to the streets of Istanbul Wednesday, demanding the resignation of the Turkish government as the number of dead rose to 274 in what is likely to become the country’s worst mining disaster.

The initially peaceful demonstrations turned ugly when police set loose water cannon and tear gas as protesters marched closer to central Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The demonstrators accused the government of murder in its handling of Tuesday’s tragedy at the Soma coal mine.

In Ankara, police used tear gas and water cannon against several hundred students who had gathered at the Energy Ministry. Protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the security forces. There were smaller demonstrations in Soma led by family and friends of the victims.

A number of funerals were held, but the majority of the bodies had not been identified. Relatives and loved-ones waited into the late evening Wednesday outside a regional hospital that was serving as a morgue.

Funeral vehicles with empty coffins inside waited near the hospital for bodies.

The Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions called for workers to strike Thursday in honor of the victims.

Questions were being raised about the mine’s safety record, with local media reporting that the ruling Justice and Development Party had rejected a call by the opposition in parliament last month to review safety at the mine.

Mine operator Soma Holding said a safety test had been carried out two months ago.

In Soma, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said hopes that rescue teams would find further survivors were fading. “It is worse than initially expected,” he said.

About 120 miners were believed to still be trapped underground, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

However, according to numbers given by the Energy Minister, the toll could exceed 400. More than 350 miners were estimated to have been rescued in the wake of the blast and subsequent fire at the coal mine, but it said 787 workers were inside at the time of the accident.

“We are moving toward the worst mining disaster in Turkey,” Yildiz was quoted as saying by the Hurriyet newspaper.

Erdogan tried to downplay the poor safety record of Turkish coal mines by comparing it to the 19th century.

“Such accidents occur regularly,” he said after visiting Soma. “If you look back into the past in England, in 1862, 204 people died in a mine. In 1866, 361 people died, and in a 1894 explosion, 290 died.”

Authorities reportedly believe the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction. Smoke continued to rise from the mine shaft late Wednesday.

Most of the deaths were the result of carbon monoxide poisoning after the fire burned off much of the oxygen in the mine.

Of those who survived, Erdogan said, 80 were being treated for injuries.

Fresh oxygen continued to be pumped into the mine shafts for any survivors, but rescue efforts were hampered by the remote location. The miners were 1 mile below the surface and 2 1/2 miles from an exit when the blast occurred.

Turkey has a history of deadly mining accidents. In 1992, one such accident near the Black Sea killed 263 people.

AFP Photo/ Bulent Kilic

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