SOMA, Turkey (AP) — The Turkish government and mining company officials vehemently denied Friday that negligence was at the root of the country's worst mining disaster even as opposition lawmakers raised questions about possible lax oversight.
Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said at least 284 people died in Tuesday's coal mine fire in Soma, a town in western Turkey. He said 17 or 18 were still missing underground and 485 miners escaped or were rescued from the inferno.
Protesting workers have described the Soma disaster as murder, not an accident, because of what they call flawed safety conditions at that mine and others in the country. Police used tear gas and water cannon Friday to disperse rock-throwing protesters in Soma, where about 1,500 demonstrators urged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to resign.
The government has asked for a parliamentary inquiry into the disaster to find out what happened and why — but it appeared that officials had already made up their minds Friday.
"There's no negligence with respect to this incident," insisted Huseyin Celik, a deputy leader of the ruling party. He said the mine in Soma "was inspected vigorously 11 times since 2009."
"Let's learn from this pain and rectify our mistakes," he said. "(But) this is not the time to look for a scapegoat."
Akin Celik, the Soma mining company's operations manager, echoed the government's argument.
"There's no negligence with respect to this incident. We all worked with all our heart and soul. I have not seen anything like this in 20 years," he told reporters.
Their comments raised the question, however, of how the mine could have been checked so often and still have such a deadly fire.
Ibrahim Ali Hasdan, a Soma resident, said he was astonished by claims there was no negligence.
"This statement hurts people's hearts ... even a young child wouldn't be convinced by this statement," he said.
The chief prosecutor in the nearby city of Akhisar said prosecutors had begun interviewing some of the injured miners and other witnesses.
Ozgur Ozel, an opposition lawmaker from the Soma region, petitioned parliament in October to hold an inquiry into mine safety but the proposal was voted down. Ozel says there's a mine accident every three or four months in the Soma region and eleven workers have died in the last three years.
Mine inspections do take place but the owners are tipped off up to a week before, Ozel alleged.
"The main suspicion about it is that there is a relationship between the government and those running this mine and the mine was not being properly supervised" for health and safety issues due to those ties, Ozel told The Associated Press in an interview Friday.
Ozel's party has criticized the government for not adopting the International Labor Organization's convention on mine safety, widely regarded as the industry standard.
"If this had been signed, perhaps the company in Soma would not have reduced its costs ... but 302 lives would still be with us," opposition party legislator Faik Oztrak said.
Joe Drexler of the Global Union Federation visited Turkey several times between 2008 and 2010 to urge government officials to ratify the ILO convention and improve health and safety in the country's mines.
"I have no doubt that this disaster could have been averted if this convention had been accepted," Drexler told the AP in a telephone interview from Canada.
Funeral prayers were said in mosques throughout Turkey for the victims and soccer fans draped their team's scarves Friday over some of the graves in Soma.
Erdogan attended one such ceremony in Istanbul. The disaster could hurt his political ambitions — Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to run for president in the country's August election after serving as prime minister for the last 11 years.
Yildiz, the energy minister, said the mine's underground fire had largely been extinguished and carbon monoxide levels had dropped substantially so emergency crews could operate more quickly.
"I believe that we will be able to reach our brothers today," he said.
Celik, the mining official, said thick smoke from the underground fire killed miners who had no gas masks.
"Smoke spread very quickly. It spread instantly," he said. "The distance between where the smoke started and the exit was five minutes. Five minutes."
The Soma mine had no safe room in the area where coal was being dug out but the company said safe rooms are not required under Turkish law.
Fraser reported from Ankara.
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