By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
CAIRO — As public fury mounted Thursday along with the casualty toll in what officials were describing as Turkey’s deadliest mine accident, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan found himself on the defensive in the wake of a seemingly tone-deaf response to the disaster.
The number of confirmed dead rose to 282, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported, citing Energy Minister Taner Yildiz. Outside the town of Soma in western Turkey, the families of miners still missing kept a grief-suffused vigil, even as prospects dimmed for finding any survivors.
Yildiz said that as of Thursday morning, no one had been found alive for the past 12 hours. About 150 miners were still unaccounted for. Throughout the day on Wednesday, relatives and other onlookers sobbed or looked on numbly as one body after another was borne up out of the depths.
With a round of funerals now underway, the government has declared three days of mourning for the victims of the catastrophic underground fire, which broke out Tuesday afternoon and was thought to have been sparked by an explosion in a power distribution unit.
Yildiz told reporters Thursday morning that the fire had still not been extinguished, and said most of the deaths were due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
The disaster cast a spotlight on harsh and dangerous working conditions endured by miners in Turkey, and raised troubling questions as to whether cozy relationships between mine owners and the government had quashed stricter safety standards. Two weeks ago, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, had rejected calls for a parliamentary probe of safety practices in the Soma mines.
Angry demonstrations broke out Wednesday in cities including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, where police fired tear gas and water cannon to try to contain the protests. On a visit to Soma, Erdogan, under police protection, was heckled by a hostile crowd, and a widely circulated photo showed a man identified as a senior Erdogan aide kicking a prone demonstrator.
The mine tragedy could carry damaging political repercussions for the prime minister, who is thought to be positioning himself for a presidential run in August.
Erdogan has promised a thorough investigation of the accident, but drew criticism for comments Wednesday in which he invoked mine disasters in other countries, some of them more than a century earlier, and said such accidents were “the nature of the work.”
“The government and the ruling party … ignored the warnings about the Soma mines,” Murat Yetkin wrote in a commentary for Thursday’s editions of the Hurriyet newspaper. “But the miners paid the price with their lives.”
AFP Photo/ Bulent Kilic