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Protesters clash with police after mine blast kills 274 in Turkey

More than 360 miners out of a total of 787 are pulled out of the mine in the initial stages of the rescue operation, but the others remained trapped underground and hope for them is rapidly dimming.

Fire officials were trying to pump clean air into the mine shaft in Soma, Turkey, for those who remained trapped some two kilometres below the surface. AFP / May 13, 2014
Fire officials were trying to pump clean air into the mine shaft in Soma, Turkey, for those who remained trapped some two kilometres below the surface. AFP / May 13, 2014

SOMA, TURKEY // Anger and grief boiled over into a violent protest on Wednesday in the western Turkish town of Soma, where officials said at least 274 miners died in a coal mine explosion and fire.

More than 360 miners out of a total of 787 were pulled out of the mine in the initial stages of the rescue operation, but the others remained trapped underground and hope for them is rapidly dimming.

As he announced that the death toll in one of the worst industrial accidents ever to hit Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, promised that the explosion would be “investigated thoroughly” and that he would “not allow any negligence”.

Tensions were high as hundreds of relatives and miners jostled outside the mine waiting for news, countered by a heavy police presence. Rows of women wailed uncontrollably, men knelt sobbing and others just stared in disbelief as rescue workers removed a steady stream of bodies throughout the night and early morning.

“My son is gone! My Mehmet,” said Emine Gulsen, who was in a group of women who sat wailing near the entrance to the mine.

Her son, Mehmet Gulsen, 31, has been working in the mine for five years.

Others shouted at Turkish officials as they passed by.

In downtown Soma, protesters mostly in their teens and 20s faced off against riot police Wednesday afternoon in front of the ruling NKP party headquarters. Police had gas masks and water cannons.

Protests spread to other cities. In the capital, police fired tear gas and water cannon when between 3,000 and 4,000 protesters took to Ankara’s downtown Kizilay square to protest the deaths.

In Istanbul, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the company that owns the mine, Soma Holding.

Mr Erdogan, who cancelled a foreign trip to visit the mine, had warned that some radical groups would try to use the disaster to discredit the government. Mr Erdogan is widely expected to run for president in elections in August, although he has not yet announced his candidacy.

He declared three days of national mourning and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff after the tragedy struck on Tuesday.

“Our hope is that, God willing, they will be brought out,” he said of those still trapped. “That is what we are waiting for.”

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President of the UAE, sent condolences to the victims of Manisa coal mine explosion and offered prayers to those who lost their lives in the accident and wishes of full recovery to the injured.

Taner Yildiz, the Turkish energy minister, said fires and the threat posed by toxic carbon monoxide were a serious obstacle to rescue efforts.

He told reporters: “I must say that our hopes about rescue efforts inside [the mine] are fading.”

Mr Yildiz said a team of 400 people were involved in the rescue effort and that the main cause of the deaths was carbon monoxide and dioxide poisoning.

The explosion is believed to have been triggered by a faulty electrical transformer.

Rescue operations continued overnight for the people still underground. Of those rescued, 80 were injured, four of them seriously.

Fire officials were trying to pump clean air into the mine shaft for those who remained trapped some two kilometres below the surface and four kilometres from the entrance.

The miners are all thought to have gas masks, but it was not clear how long they would last.

Vedat Didari, a professor of mining, told AFP that the biggest risk was the lack of oxygen.

“If the ceiling fans are not working, the workers could die within an hour,” said Didari, from the Bulent Ecevit University in the city of Zonguldak.

Hundreds of people gathered around the explosion site as rescuers brought out injured workers, who were coughing and struggling to breathe due to the dust.

Sena Isbiler, a mother of one of the miners, stood on top of piles of wood, craning her neck to see who was being led out of the mine.

“I have been waiting for my son since early afternoon,” she told AFP.

“I haven’t heard anything about him yet.”

Arum Unzar, a colleague of the missing miners said he had lost a friend previously “but this is enormous”.

“All the victims are our friends,” he said as he wept.

“We are a family and today that family is devastated. We have had very little news and when it does come it’s very bad,” he added.

Explosions and cave-ins are common in Turkey, particularly in private mines where safety regulations are often flouted.

Turkey’s ministry of labour and social security said the mine was last inspected on March 17 and was found to be compliant with safety regulations.

However, Oktay Berrin, a miner, said his fellow workers were not adequately protected underground.

“There is no security in this mine,” he told AFP.

“The unions are just puppets and our management only cares about money.”

The mining company Soma Komur issued a statement saying the mine maintained excellent safety standards.

“Unfortunately, some of our workers have lost their lives in this tragic accident,” the statement said.

“The accident happened despite maximum safety measures and inspections, but we have been able to take prompt action.”

Turkey’s worst mining accident happened in 1992 when 263 workers were killed in a gas explosion in a mine in Zonguldak.

Soma is one of the key centres for lignite coal mining in Turkey, a district with a population of around 100,000 where the mines and a lignite-fired thermal power plant are the main economic activity.

* With reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse