Turkish police use water cannon and tear gas on protesters in Soma

Anger has swept Turkey as the extent of the disaster became clear, with protests partly directed at mine owners accused of prioritising profit over safety, and partly at the prime minister.
Turkish riot police use water cannons against protestors in Soma. AFP / May 16, 2014
Turkish riot police use water cannons against protestors in Soma. AFP / May 16, 2014

SOMA, TURKEY // Police fired water cannon and tear gas yesterday to disperse a crowd of several thousand protesters in Soma, where close to 300 people died in the country’s worst ever mining disaster this week.

People scattered into side streets as the police intervened on a commercial street lined with shops and banks, as well as the offices of the local government and labour union.

Anger has swept Turkey as the extent of the disaster became clear, with protests partly directed at mine owners accused of prioritising profit over safety, and partly at the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government, seen as too cosy with industry tycoons and too lax in enforcing regulations.

The unrest came after a the mining company defended its safety record and senior Turkish officials denied allegations of lax government oversight.

At least 284 people died in Tuesday’s coal mine explosion and fire. Eighteen miners still remain missing, the country’s energy minister said, tamping down earlier fears that more than 100 victims were still in the mine.

“It’s not an accident, it’s murder,” read one banner held by workers who marched through the streets of Istanbul on Thursday.

The public anger has stirred up new hostility towards Mr Erdogan’s government, which had been already sharply criticised for last summer’s violent crackdown on protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and this year’s crackdown on social media.

The owner of the mine where the disaster occurred, Alp Gurkan, said he had spent his own money improving standards at the mine in the western town of Soma.

“I am hurting inside,” he said.

Mr Gurkan said he hoped to continue operations at the Soma mine after correcting any problems found by investigators.

Responding to the outcry, Taner Yildiz, the energy minister, said that anyone found to have been negligent about safety at the mine can expect punishment.

“If they are at fault, no tolerance will be shown regardless of whether they are from the public or private sector,” he said.

Mr Erdogan’s ruling party asked parliament to set up an inquiry into the disaster – an apparent attempt to signal that authorities won’t flinch from getting at the truth.

Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party, defended the government’s record.

“We have no inspection and supervision problem,” he said. “This mine was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009.”

His comments raised the question, however, of how the mine could have been so vigorously checked and still have an explosion that killed nearly 300 people. Mr Celik also urged people to move on from the disaster – comments that certainly could rankle in industrial Soma, where days of heartbreaking funerals have been held this week.

“Let’s learn from this pain and rectify our mistakes. The private sector and the public sector will draw lessons,” he said. “This is not the time to look for a scapegoat.”

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters

* Associated Press

Published: May 16, 2014 04:00 AM

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