The outrage over the deaths of at least 245 coal miners in the western Turkish town of Soma has sparked anti-government protests Wednesday across the nation with crowds chanting for resignation of the government.
Angry relatives of the victims booed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and called for his resignation during his visit to Soma where some 400 rescuers have been scrambled to save trapped miners estimated to be over 100.
Protests spilled over other cities and towns where crowds gathered to express their frustration with the government over what they called lack of effective measures to curb death at workplaces.
Police shut down the access to Taksim Square’s Gezi Park, center of anti-government protests erupted a year ago. The number of police officers in Istanbul’s historical square was boosted as police used water cannon and pepper gas to confront protestors.
In the Turkish capital, several protests were staged. A group of students from Middle East Technical University (ODTU) who attempted to march toward the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry to protest the death of the miners was met with police force. Police used water cannon and tear gas against the students.
Some people staged a sit-in protest in Ankara’s GuvenPark nearby neighborhoods housing many diplomatic buildings.
Protestors also staged rallies in Eskisehir province as many stood vigilance for miners by lighting candles.
The fear is that death toll may further rise given that 787 people were inside the coal mine in Soma at the time of Tuesday’s explosion. According to Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, 363 of them had been rescued so far.
“Regarding the rescue operation, I can say that our hopes are diminishing,” Yildiz told reporters on Wednesday.
The explosion tore through the mine as workers were preparing for a shift change, officials said, which likely raised the casualty toll because there were more miners inside than usual.
Mining accidents are not uncommon in Turkey, which is plagued by poor safety conditions which claimed lives of more than 3,000 workers since 1941. The country’s worst mining disaster to date was a gas explosion that killed 263 workers in the province of Zonguldak in 1992.
With the death toll rising and little hope for over hundred still trapped inside the mine, the Soma disaster could very well top that number.
The country’s main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) said Erdogan’s ruling party killed a motion for the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into a series of accidents at mines around Soma two weeks ago.
Erdogan dismissed the motion on Wednesday, saying that it was just an attempt to block the agenda in the Parliament at the time.
The CHP deputy Ozgur Ozel, who sponsored the motion along with 60 deputies, said the motion focused on coal mine accidents in Soma and had the backing of other opposition parties in parliament.
The CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu rushed to Soma and visited injured miners who were being treated at hospital.
Turkey’s unions blame the government for lack of effective inspection on companies running coal mines.
A Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects’ Chambers (TMMOB) accused the government for not taking necessary measures to ensure workplace safety at mines. In a statement issued by the union on Wednesday, it was noted that Turkey has the highest number of fatal work accidents in Europe per year.
In its statement, the Revolutionary Mineral Research and Exploitation Workers’ Union stated that eight miners were killed and 15 miners injured in work accidents at Soma in 2013, blaming the incidents on the state’s failure to conduct regular inspections at mines.
In the meantime, another bad news came in from the Black Sea province of Zonguldak, where a collapse killed a miner deep under the earth on Wednesday.
The mine in Zonguldak’s Gelik district is reportedly unlicensed.