Thousands of Turkish protesters have gone on strike to express their fury over the country’s worst mining accident, with the toll from the disaster rising to 283 and scores still trapped underground.
Police forces fired tear gas and water cannon to break up a demonstration in Izmir, the nearest large city to Soma, where around 20,000 demonstrators were protesting against the sharp deterioration in working conditions in formerly state-run mines, including the one in Soma, after they were leased to private firms.
Several thousand people also demonstrated peacefully on Thursday in Istanbul, holding banners with slogans including: “It is not an accident, it is not fate, it is murder” and “Our hearts are burning in Soma,” according to a Reuters report. Some staged a sit-down protest in front of police lines.
There were reports of protests in the southern cities of Mersin and Antalya. 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.
Anger and grief had boiled over into violent protests in several parts of Turkey on Wednesday. Police fired tear gas and water cannon at thousands who were protesting in Ankara’s Kizilay Square. Similar protests were taking place in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in Soma.
Speaking from Soma, Al Jazeera’s Caroline Malone said the feeling was one of helplessness and despair.
“One man who was a team leader of miners still trapped inside the mine has been on site for two days, feeling incredibly helpess after not being able to do anything.”
Recep Teyyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, said the accident would be “investigated thoroughly”.
But protesters in the streets of Istanbul were chanting “Government resign” and relatives of the miners in Soma shouted that Erdogan was a “murderer!” and a “thief!”
“Erdogan implied yesterday in his speech that this accident was just one of those things, and that mining is difficult and the industry is inherently dangerous. He rather oddly quoted figures from Victorian England on mining accidents,” said Al Jazeera’s Anita Mcnaught, reporting from Istanbul.
“In October last year, the opposition tabled legistlation to improve mining conditions in Soma, but two weeks ago the government threw it out. The public believes mining is a problem,” added McNaught.
Police set up fences and stood guard around Soma state hospital to keep the crowds away from scores of injured miners, the AP news agency reported.
At least 80 were reported injured in the accident.
Erdogan declared three days of national mourning and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff following the tragedy. He postponed a foreign trip to visit the mine in Soma, about 250km south of Istanbul.
A convoy containing Erdogan’s car was attacked during his visit to Soma by crowds who chanted for him to resign.
Authorities say the disaster followed an explosion and fire caused by a power-distribution unit and the deaths were caused by carbon-monoxide poisoning.
About 450 people have been rescued so far, according to the mining company, but authorities say the rescue effort was being hampered by the fact that the mine was made up of tunnels that were kilometres long.
Soma Komur Isletmeleri AS, which owns the mine, said the accident occurred despite the “highest safety measures and constant controls” and added that an investigation was being launched.
Turkey’s Labour and Social Security Ministry said the mine had been inspected five times since 2012, including in March of 2014, and that no issues violating work safety and security were detected.
The country’s main opposition party said Erdogan’s ruling party had recently voted down a proposal to hold parliamentary inquiry into a series of small-scale accidents at the mines around Soma.
Accidents are common in Turkey’s mining industry, which is plagued by poor safety conditions.
Turkey’s second worst mining disaster was a 1992 gas explosion that killed 263 workers near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak. [AlJazeera]