ISTANBUL/SOMA, TURKEY – Turkey on Saturday declared rescue operations over following a devastating blast in a coal mine after retrieving the bodies of the last two trapped miners, bringing the final death toll to 301.
“The rescue operation was carried out to completion. There are no miners left underground. All of them have been identified after DNA tests,” Energy Minister Taner Yildiz told reporters in the western town of Soma, site of the country’s worst ever industrial disaster.
“Rescuers scoured all corners of the mine for a last time to make sure everyone had been located, but they have not come across any more bodies,” he said.
Rescue workers battled unexpected fires following Tuesday’s initial fire and explosion, Yildiz said, including one that broke out earlier Saturday, hampering efforts to save the last two trapped miners.
A total of 485 miners were rescued alive, he added, pledging support for the stricken families.
A preliminary expert report on the accident, obtained by the Milliyet newspaper, pointed to several safety violations in the mine, including a shortage of carbon monoxide detectors and ceilings made of wood instead of metal.
Mine operator Soma Komur on Friday vehemently denied any negligence.
“We have all worked very hard. I have not seen such an incident in 20 years,” said general director Akin Celik.
Yildiz said the mine will not resume production until “all issues have been brought to light.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the focus of mounting anger for his response, starting with an apparent attempt to play down the incident by comparing it to mining disasters from 19th-century Britain.
At least 36 people, including eight lawyers, were briefly arrested and held in a stadium in Soma on Saturday after they attempted to make a statement.
Police beat and injured some of the lawyers who had come to advise families of the miners who lost their lives, the Contemporary Lawyers Association wrote on Twitter.
Security checkpoints were set up on main roads leading to Soma a day after police forcefully broke up a peaceful demonstration in the town.
Nationwide trauma has turned to rage, fueled by claims of negligence against mine operators and what many see as a heartless response from the government.
There was further outrage on social media after a video emerged of Erdogan shouting an anti-Israel slur at a crowd of angry protesters — and apparently hitting one of them.
“Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?” Erdogan is heard yelling at a protester in the footage, which surfaced after one of his advisers was photographed kicking a grieving demonstrator.
But an official from Erdogan’s office said Saturday: “The prime minister has definitely not used such an expression. The use of such an expression is out of the question.”
Erdogan’s popularity — particularly among poorer, rural communities — has proved largely impervious both to waves of anti-government protests last year and recent allegations of high-level corruption, with his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party winning a landslide victory in local elections in March.
But the response to the mining disaster may shock even his more loyal supporters, analysts say.
“This time even many of Erdogan’s supporters are feeling skeptical and confused about his response. That’s a new feeling for them. The image of a government adviser kicking a protester is bound to evoke a sense of revulsion,” Rasit Kaya, political science professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, said.
“It is not something he can easily turn to his advantage. But how much damage will be caused is anyone’s guess,” he said.
Mine explosions and collapses are frequent in Turkey, but both the scale and the handling of Tuesday’s disaster stand to weaken Erdogan’s hand ahead of an expected run for the presidency in August.
Turkish police used tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets to disperse demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans in Soma on Friday.
In Istanbul, police broke up a demonstration by about 150 people who lit candles and lined up mining helmets on the ground to pay tribute to the dead miners.
Students occupied university buildings in the city, holding an all-night vigil in protest at the official response.
Erdogan’s government stands accused of failing to heed warnings about Soma, a key center for lignite coal mining that has suffered accidents in the past.
Ozgur Ozel, a local lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said the ruling party had turned down his request to investigate work-related accidents at coal mines in Soma.
But Yildiz said his party is now backing a motion to probe the disaster and vowed to amend mining regulations.