Turkey mine tragedy grief turns to anger

Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is shown kicking a protester. Picture: AP
Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is shown kicking a protester. Picture: AP
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Trade unions in Turkey have held a one-day strike in protest at the country’s worst mining disaster, as the death toll climbed to at least 282.

Thousands of workers took to the streets in cities across the country, with clashes between police and protesters breaking out in some areas.

Several unions that took part in the 24-hour strike said they blamed the privatisation of the mining sector for making working conditions more dangerous.

It came as president Abdullah Gul visited the scene of the disaster in Soma and Turkey began three days of mourning.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was booed and jostled by angry protesters during his visit to Soma on Wednesday.

Blackening his reputation still further, one of his close aides, Yusuf Yerkel, was accused of kicking a protester on the ground. Footage emerged last night of the incident, and Turkish media confirmed the attacker was Mr Yerkel.

The prime minister’s office tried to distance itself from his embarrassing actions, with one official saying the issue was “his own personal matter”.

Turkey’s largest trade union confederation, representing some 800,000 workers, joined yesterday’s one-day strike called by other unions to demand better conditions for workers.

Miners in Zonguldak, obeying the strike call, gathered in front of a pit but did not enter it.

In Istanbul, a group of demonstrators chanted anti-government slogans and carried a large banner that read: “It’s not an accident, it’s murder.”

More than 3,000 people gathered in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, to protest against worsening mining conditions.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon on some 20,000 people who took to the streets in Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, which is 75 miles from Soma.

Meanwhile, rescue teams recovered the bodies of eight more victims, taking the death toll to 282, with some 142 still unaccounted for, according to government figures.

Energy minister Taner Yildiz said a fire inside the mine had started dying down, offering hope that rescuers would soon be able to speed up the search for the missing.

Rescue operations have been suspended several times as burning coal inside created toxic fumes which made conditions for the rescue teams unsafe.

Authorities said the disaster followed an explosion and a fire at a power distribution unit, and most deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

At a graveyard in Soma, a town in which coal mining has been the main industry for decades, women wailed loudly in an improvised display of mourning. They swayed and sang songs about their relatives as the bodies were taken from coffins and lowered into their graves. Pictures of the lost relatives were pinned on to their clothing.

“The love of my life is gone,” some sang, chanting the names of dead miners.

Many mourners said they had spent their whole lives fearing something like this.

Gulizar Donmez, 45, whose husband and father are miners and whose neighbour was one of the victims, said: “The wives of the miners kiss their husbands in the morning. When they come back, even if they are five minutes late, everyone starts calling. You never know what is going to happen”.

Mr Gul described the events in Soma as “a huge disaster”.

“The pain is felt by us all,” the president said. But local people, angry at what they saw as the slow rescue operation shouted at him, demanding more should be done to reach possible survivors.

They had been outraged by Mr Erdogan referring to mining accidents as “ordinary things” that occur in many other countries, after giving examples of 19th-century mine accidents in Britain.

The prime minister, who is soon expected to announce his candidacy for Turkey’s presidential election in August, was forced to take refuge at a supermarket on Wednesday after angry crowds called him a murderer and a thief – a reference to alleged corruption – and clashed with police.

Mr Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president. His party swept local elections in March despite a corruption scandal that forced him to dismiss four government ministers in December and later also implicated him and family members.

He has denied corruption, calling the allegations part of a plot to bring down his government.

The government has said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion, and that 383 were rescued, many with injuries.

The blast tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, which probably raised the number of dead and injured.

It was Turkey’s worst mining accident, topping a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak.

Mining accidents are common in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions. Mr Erdogan promised the tragedy would be investigated to its “smallest detail” and that “no negligence will be ignored.”

The Hurriyet newspaper reported that a team of 15 prosecutors had been assigned to investigate the accident.