Tear gas and plastic bullets used on Turkish mine protesters

Turkish minister says 284 confirmed dead, 18 miners still missing

A Turkish riot policeman shoots plastic bullets at protesters during a protest against the government yesterday after the mine explosion in Soma. EPA/Tolga Bozoglu

A Turkish riot policeman shoots plastic bullets at protesters during a protest against the government yesterday after the mine explosion in Soma. EPA/Tolga Bozoglu


Turkish police used teargas, plastic bullets and water cannon to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who gathered yesterday at the scene of the country’s worst industrial incident. They were protesting at Turkey’s dismal work safety record and the prime minister’s apparently offhand attitude towards victims of the catastrophe.

After Tuesday’s explosion and fire at the mine in Soma, western Turkey, 284 people are confirmed dead. Turkish energy minister Taner Yildiz said 18 miners were still missing.

The deaths in the Soma coal mine have stirred up fresh antipathy toward Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was criticised for last summer’s crackdown on protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and his increasingly intolerant stance towards any kind of dissent.

The prime minister’s comments that “this is what happens in coal mining” prompted a furious reaction in Soma, where he was confronted by angry protesters on Wednesday.

‘It was murder’
About 1,500 protesters gathered in the city yesterday, chanting anti-government slogans, before they were dispersed by riot police. Some of the demonstrators carried banners reading “It was not an accident, it was murder”.

Opposition parties, unions and human rights groups have called for an investigation in to the cause of the incident and for those responsible to be held accountable.

Mr Erdogan’s ruling party has asked the parliament to set up an inquiry into the disaster but accepted no responsibility.

“We have no inspection and supervision problem” at the Soma mine, said Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party, who said the mine had been inspected “vigorously” 11 times since 2009.

“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.”

Local miners and union members disagreed. “It is sad that Turkey is still number one in Europe when it comes to work accidents,” said Tamer Kucukgencay, chairman of the regional miners’ union. “This mine was constantly inspected and certified as safe. The investigations into who is responsible for this accident has to start with those inspectors.”

In his first press conference since the incident, Akin Celik, the operating manager of the Soma Coal Mining Company, denied responsibility.

“There was no negligence on our side. I have worked in mines for 20 years, and I have never witnessed such an incident,” he said.

Alp Gurkan, the mine’s owner, said his company had invested a lot of resources to ensure the safety of workers. “We have spent our income to improve working conditions to avoid possible accidents,” he said.

However, Turkish media said a 2010 report by the Turkish Chamber of Architects and Engineers warned of major safety deficiencies in the Soma mines. Ventilation systems, pre-warning mechanisms and faulty wall supports all presented a serious danger to workers’ safety, according to the report.

“No production should be made before the necessary research has been completed. Carrying out production with the lack of experience might lead to disaster,” the report warned.

Profit and output
Ali, a mining worker of five years who previously worked as a subcontractor in Soma but is now a coal miner in the Thracian city of Edirne, said work safety was the least important issue in Turkish mines. “All they care about is profit and an ever-increasing output. The subcontractor system makes an already bad issue worse. Miners are probably doing the worst of all in Turkey.”

Human rights groups criticised what they called the haphazard attitude of both the Turkish government and the mining operator.

Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher at Amnesty International, said the disaster could have been avoided.

“The long history of deaths in mines in Turkey raises chilling questions over workers’ safety,” he said.

“The fact that the government rejected recent calls by parliamentarians to investigate serious work-related accidents is nothing short of shocking. They are playing with people’s lives.” – (Guardian service)